Shadows and Siege
"Aiden." The unfamiliar voice over the phone had nearly whispered the word and then hung up without further directions. So, this wasn't just a contact, this was Section pulling them in.
Jim found himself unconsciously searching the street with his hearing. Were they out there already? If Jim had to guess, he would say they were. Last time Section had wanted them, he had come home to find Michael standing in his darkened living room. The mission to rescue one of their agents, Nikita, had nearly cost Jim his life and his guide. And since that had happened, Jim had lived every day with the knowledge that Section was always there. Sometimes it was a familiar figure leaning against a building watching them; other times the phone would ring and the activation code was followed by instructions that Jim had always followed. In two years, he'd learned to hope that Section wouldn't want more. He was wrong.
"Sandburg," Jim called. "Pack a light bag."
Blair's face appeared at the door to his room, his glasses half down his nose and a pen still in one hand.
"Jim?" he asked.
"Pack a light bag. Ten minutes to get downstairs," Jim said as he headed up the stairs to his bedroom without any further explanation. As he packed a change of clothes and a few toiletries, he could hear Blair cursing, the slide of books against one another telling Jim exactly what Blair was considering 'light.'
"No books," he yelled down, inspiring another round of more vicious cursing. Jim headed back down and did a sweep through the kitchen, pulling the perishable food out of the refrigerator and either shoving it into the freezer or a garbage bag.
"Aren't you going to call Simon?" Blair asked as he came out, his ubiquitous backpack flung over his shoulder as he headed for the phone.
"Don't call anyone," Jim said as he checked the clock and decided he didn't have time for a security sweep of the doors and window. He caught Blair by the arm and headed for the front door.
"But I have class. Oh man, this is so not cool."
"Trust them to have some cover story, a cover story you do not know, so let them handle it," Jim said firmly as he locked the front door with sixty seconds to spare. "Downstairs, double time." Jim ignored the elevator and headed for the stairs. Mrs. Mullens on the second floor was impatiently poking the elevator button so they didn't have time to wait.
"Geez. Okay, pushy much?" Blair muttered, but he came, hurrying down the stairs two steps behind Jim.
"Chief." Jim stopped at the bottom, and looked at Blair. The man was a doctor of anthropology, a respected consultant who specialized in the continuation of victimization through acculturation. And yet, Jim just couldn't see him as anything other than a student who he had dragged into this cloak and dagger world they were about to disappear back into.
"Blair," Jim said softly.
Blair snorted. "Oh man, do not start your self-flagellation shit right now. I'm the one who tracked you down. I talked you into letting me move in. So if anyone dragged anyone anywhere, you were the draggee, not the dragger." And with typical Sandburg charm, Blair shoved past Jim and headed for the sidewalk.
"You could at least let me apologize," Jim muttered as he followed, dropping the trash bag in the bin outside the door.
"Yeah, right," Blair snorted again. "Buddy, you do not apologize. You stammer and offer to fix my carburetor. Besides, this is not your fault," Blair added, but his confidence vanished as a black van pulled around the corner. Jim tightened his hand on Blair's shoulder and listened to the four heartbeats inside. The van stopped, and the door slid open without any of the four moving: two in front, two in back. Jim stepped forward into the dark, spotting the two agents sitting on the bench beside the door. Sliding into place on the far bench, Jim watched as Blair got in, hesitated just a second, and then slid into place next to Jim. Last time they'd been chained and drugged by this time. From the way Blair's heart was tripping along, he expected that again. Instead, one of the agents slid the door closed and took his seat again as the van started rolling.
"I'm carrying my service weapon," Jim informed them, his hands on his knees. Neither of the two men across from them reacted, and Blair slid a half inch closer so that they pressed leg to leg. Jim understood Blair's fear. For Jim, action mattered. These men hadn't disarmed him, they weren't chaining him or searching his bag. Jim could feel some of the tension ease as he realized something had changed in the way Section did business. But Blair worked with words, with reassurances and sometimes with manipulations, but always with words. As the silence continued, Blair smelled strongly of fear.
Reaching over, Jim rested his hand on Blair's knee. "Breathe, Chief. It's just another job," he offered. Blair shot him an incredulous look before going back to watching their two watchers.
"How was your trip?" a blonde woman asked as she stood in the open door. Jim put down the manual for the P-90 he'd found in his room and focused on the woman. He'd expected Michael or Madeline, but neither one had shown up yet.
"Long," Jim said honestly. Three hours in the van, six to eight more in a plane ending with another hour in a van, possibly driving in circles before being strip-searched and escorted to their room. It had been long. Behind him, Blair was silent and still smelling of fear. Jim couldn't blame him. The furnished quarters suggested that Section wanted them for more than a quick mission, and the wide array of weapons' manuals he'd found on one of the beds suggested they wanted him to carry serious weaponry, so wherever they were going, they were going in hot. Blair wasn't stupid, so Jim didn't bother saying any of this to his guide. He just watched Blair's eyes travel the room as the sharp scent of fear tickled Jim's nose.
"I thought I would escort you to briefing."
"You're Nikita," Blair suddenly said. "I mean, you looked a lot different last time, but it's you."
The woman smiled, and Jim studied her face more carefully. The last time he'd seen her, she'd been bruised and swollen, one eye nearly black and totally shut, but Blair was right; this was Nikita who they had saved during their only other mission for Section.
"I never had a chance to thank you for getting me out of... where I was," she finished after a brief hesitation. "I've tried to keep you clear of Section in part because of that."
"But now you can't," Jim said quietly. He could feel his own fear gathering, and he shoved it away mercilessly. He didn't have time for feelings right now. Right now, he needed to be a soldier to survive this.
"No, I can't. Let's talk in the briefing room," Nikita suggested as she stepped backwards. Jim traded a quick look with Blair, watching as his guide took a deep breath and tried to center himself.
"Hate this shit, hate this shit, hate this shit," he chanted like a mantra so softly that only Jim could hear. Jim rested his hand on Blair's back, as they followed Nikita out into the corridor. Two guards fell in behind them, and Jim found himself cataloging their weaknesses even though he knew it wouldn't do him any good to take them out. One walked too close to the wall--it meant he wouldn't have as much room to maneuver if Jim attacked--and the other had a slight injury to his left leg.
"Dr. Sandburg, I enjoyed your last paper on group dynamics and victimization," Nikita offered casually, but Jim's guts clenched. She was going out of her way to point out that Section still kept close watch on them--on Blair.
"You read that?" Blair asked with just a hint of enthusiasm.
"Our profilers tell me they adjusted their prediction models based on your work and have improved their efficiency."
"Okay, I have no idea how to take that. I mean, no offense, but making your job easier was not my goal."
Nikita just laughed. "I imagine that it wasn't. However, your work in the area is truly amazing, and it doesn't hurt that no one would ever expect your unpublished dissertation to be on any subject other than victims. Of course, your dissertation has made the rounds of various agencies, and that is equally impressive."
"What?" Blair almost yelped. "All copies were accounted for. I didn't let even one go astray, I swear, Jim," Blair stopped dead in the middle of the hallway, and Jim had to push on his back to get him moving again.
"Don't worry about it, Chief. I never had any illusions about who would see the dissertation."
"But I kept everything protected. I didn't let even one copy go outside the dissertation committee. Oh man, I was ultra paranoid."
"Not quite paranoid enough," Nikita pointed out. "Of course, we had a copy of your preliminary report, but your first draft nearly made the national press, which would have been a serious problem."
"What?" Blair stopped again. "No way. No fucking way. What are you talking about? And how did you get my preliminary report? I was the only one who had that." The fear smell was dissipating as Blair got a good head of anger going. Jim had been resting his hand on Blair's back, but he switched to a hold on Sandburg's shoulder as the two guards subtly closed the distance between them.
Jim waited for Nikita to say something, but she just stood, watching them, so Jim got the definite impression she was leaving this decision up to him. "Chief," Jim said slowly, not really sure how he was going to take this. Most of the time, Blair defined the term laid-back, but when it came to his work, the word rabid came to mind. "You shared your preliminary report with me."
"What?" Blair's confusion quickly transitioned to a narrow-eyed anger. "You dick. You just handed it over to them? Oh man, if you'd told me, I would have..." Blair stopped, his gaze darting to Nikita.
"You would have tried to edit the copy," Jim finished. "That's why I didn't tell you." Even without saying anything else, Jim knew Blair would understand. Blair hated being on the leash of some secret agency, but Jim had been on some sort of leash his whole adult life. Even being officially out of the military, he knew he could be called back to active duty at any time, and being trained in covert ops and being a Sentinel with heightened senses, he'd accepted that the day might come when he was. "However, I only surrendered the copy once someone used the Aiden code, so if it nearly got out to the national press, the leak is here." Jim stared at Nikita.
She gave a small smile. "The leak is Naomi Sandburg," Nikita shrugged. "She sent a copy to a publisher who was then pressured to make certain parts public knowledge."
"She what? Naomi wouldn't do that. No way," Blair all but growled.
"She found a copy of your first draft on an unsecured laptop and sent it to Sid Graham in New York so he could look it over," Nikita said as she pressed a button and called for an elevator. "In turn, he was pressured to make the document public, to offer as much money as he had to in order to make it public, and to release it without permission if he couldn't buy your cooperation."
The elevator doors opened, and Jim had to almost push Blair into the elevator. "Sid Graham?" Blair asked weakly, obviously recognizing the name. "But he can't legally just release information without my permission."
"The legalities wouldn't matter once the press got a look at the dissertation, particularly since you hadn't expunged names yet. You might have been a wealthy man if we hadn't intervened. The advance alone would have paid off your student loans."
Jim couldn't help making a derisive noise. "No offense to Blair, but I read the dissertation. It wasn't exactly a page turner." Hell, there were parts when Jim was flipping past pages of statistics on perfume sniffers just trying to not fall asleep as he read it.
Nikita smiled. "Certain sections taken out of context with the scientific data stripped out would certainly be enough to catch people's attention," Nikita said with a shrug. The elevator slid to a stop and she got out. "However, we convinced Mr. Graham to back off."
"But... why?" Blair asked. "I mean, if the other agencies know about Sentinels, what possible good would it do to make it public knowledge, except to make Jim's life a living hell? Man, this is so not cool." Blair ranted most of the way through the main entrance to a set of double doors that she pushed open.
"The most likely scenario according to the profilers was to make Sentinels and their weaknesses public knowledge, which would damage their usefulness in the field. The actions seemed particularly aimed at Section since we have become the most active recruiters of Sentinels."
Jim jerked to a stop at that simple statement, but Nikita's face remained calm. She didn't have the coldness of Madeline, but Jim wondered if it would just take her more time to get there. "So, have we been recruited?" Jim asked sharply.
"You were recruited two years ago," Nikita pointed out as she sat down in a leather chair at the head of an enormous table.
"And now you're bringing us in."
"True." Nikita paused. Beside him, Blair bounced nervously. "We have a job for which our current Sentinels are not qualified. But to answer the question you have not asked, no one intended for you to remain here for a prolonged period of time. We're hoping that you can complete your mission and return to Cascade within three weeks."
"What do you mean 'not qualified'?" Blair asked as he inched closer to Jim.
"I do plan to give you a full briefing, but would you allow me to present the information in chronological order? I'm afraid if I answer your questions one at a time, we'll be here long after your team arrives."
"Our team?" Jim demanded.
"Perhaps I should start here." Nikita flipped a switch and a hologram of a beautiful blonde woman appeared above the table. Jim blinked, the image wavering between a solid figure and a collection of random dots before his eyes adjusted.
"Alex?" Blair asked as he stepped toward the table. The name helped Jim figure out where he knew her from. When he'd seen her, it'd been in autopsy photographs.
"Alex Barnes," Nikita agreed. "She was the second Sentinel you found in Cascade."
"The one killed on campus," Jim said as he slowly sat down and studied the figure. He could hear Blair's heart pounding. At the time, Jim had been peripherally involved in the homicide investigation only because his partner had known the victim.
"Oh man," Blair breathed. Jim could tell from Blair's heartbeat that he had already figured out that Section had something to do with her murder. The killing had been too clean… too professional for homicide to even get a single lead. The case might have even been bumped up to Major Crimes except that Blair had known her and he was too involved with the entire department for anyone to claim impartiality in the case.
"She was actually an international thief. Her current target was a shipment of nerve gas which would have endangered thousands of people, but her senses had started going out of control. The profilers were almost evenly divided between those who believed she would kidnap you and kill you later and those who believed she would kill you in Cascade," Nikita told Blair calmly, and Jim could tell from her heartbeat and the steady shape of her pupils that she believed what she was saying. "Section sent Michael out to cancel her."
A click made a new face appear, one that Jim vaguely recognized. "Dr. Harper Ravensly, specializing in tribal authority and how it related to modern police and government authority in the sociological schema of modern life. We arranged for Dr. Ravensly to transfer to Rainier hoping that you would find a secondary subject area that would justify you working with the police department after your dissertation was finished."
"Oh man, I mean, his work is great, but Harper himself is a first class ass. You thought I would *want* to work with him?" Blair asked incredulously. "And what are you doing trying to manipulate my professional life. This is the definition of uncool."
Jim had to bite back a dark laugh at Blair's open hostility. He was sitting across from a woman who could and most likely had ordered people dead without a second thought, and he was upset that it wasn't cool that she interfered in his professional life. Some days Jim wasn't sure if Blair was the most centered or the most screwy individual in the universe. The jury was still out.
Completely ignoring Blair's outburst, Nikita continued the briefing. "Our profilers made a second attempt with Dr. Cynthia Theroux and her work with anthropological profiling of criminal communities. We thought we had successfully diverted you into a secondary field of study when Dr. Theroux brought in the variable."
"Variable?" Blair snorted. "He's called a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal who should be buried under the jail, and would be if there were any fairness in the world because verbal abuse is every bit as damaging as physical abuse. Asshole."
"And the profilers suggested that Dr. Theroux would likely find another knuckle-dragging Neanderthal if we removed Mr. Kaeser. Which brings us to Dr. Ruiz and the culture of victimization. We provided the grant funding at Rainier that paid for his first study."
"Whoa. I am seriously feeling like a fucking puppet on a string here," Blair sighed as he finally sank into the seat next to Jim.
"You shouldn't. Our profilers are very good, so for them to miscalculate not once but twice--you are a very hard man to profile, Dr. Sandburg. I think they had a betting pool on who could finally get you settled into a scenario, but you clearly made your own choice on what work you wanted to do," Nikita said. Jim was grateful for that kindness... for the illusion of choice that would at least allow Blair to continue his work without feeling trapped by the knowledge that someone had chosen it for him. Blair nodded dumbly.
"Captain Ellison, meanwhile, was the subject of a number of different investigations. The NID investigation was led by a man by the name of Colonel Simmons." With a click a man appeared in the hologram: sharp eyes and a large nose under a receding hairline. Jim studied his features and filed them away for future reference. "The NID has had almost no success in working with Sentinels, and the fact that Ellison did covert ops wetwork before coming on-line made them believe that he might be what they were searching for--a Sentinel without the moral constraints that prevent most Sentinels from participating in the darker side of our business. He is the most likely candidate for attempting to release the Sentinel dissertation to the public. If he can't use Sentinel skills, then he would rather the other agencies not have access to them either. However, getting caught with his hand in that particular cookie jar would make him a target for every covert ops organization in the world, so the evidence connecting him to the Graham plot is minimal."
"NID. Oh fuck," Blair breathed. Jim absentmindedly reached over and rested his hand on Blair's leg to quiet him.
Nikita flipped another switch. "Lieutenant General West, retired. He was assigned by the president to evaluate personnel for a secret project working out of Colorado. He had pulled all your information and we thought he was going to reactivate your commission. He was prevented only by the leg wound Klaus Zeller inflicted."
"No way. Did you..." Blair started.
"No," Nikita said quickly. "We had plans to activate you before West's recommendation, but when Ellison was out of commission, the general chose another Sentinel to recommend. As of right now, the president has hesitated to involve a Sentinel in that project."
Jim leaned forward and studied Nikita, surprised at either the level of honesty or the quality of her acting, and he wasn't sure which one. It didn't make sense to give away all this information without getting something in return and as much as Blair was relaxing with each new piece of information, Jim could feel the fear claw in his guts. "Do you have the power to bring us in even if the president has signed an order to reactivate me?" he asked, not sure if he wanted the answer. Anything other than an outright refusal to reveal that level of information would certainly worry him.
Nikita leaned back and flipped off the hologram. "Section operates at a level which transcends national borders. We do not act in direct opposition to the president, but we are not inside any power structure that recognizes him, either. Whichever of us called on your skills first would get you since we try very hard to simply avoid each other."
"Unless you wanted us more," Jim guessed. These people were black ops, so far outside the law that they made the NID look like boy scouts.
She frowned. "I wouldn't put our organization at odds with the American government over one operative. However, that does bring us to our next piece of business. Congratulations Lieutenant Colonel Ellison." Nikita pulled a paper out of the file in front of her, sliding it across the table, and Jim pulled it close, reading the paperwork with shock that just grew as he finally got to the signatures at the bottom.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"It's an official promotion. At least, it appears to be an official promotion," Jim said as he looked at Nikita suspiciously. "I've never known of anyone to skip 'major' altogether or to get promoted after leaving active duty."
"According to the president, you are on active duty, if not in the official armed services. If certain agencies decide to reactivate your commission, the rank will offer you some protection."
"I hate this cloak and dagger manipulation shit," Blair muttered. "They can't just reactive his commission."
"Actually, yes, they can, Chief."
"Which is another concern," Nikita broke in just when Blair opened his mouth to tell them exactly what he thought of the military and their rules. Right now, Jim would actually prefer the military because at least he understood their rules. Section was an unknown, and the longer he was in this room with Nikita, the more unknown it was feeling. Michael and Madeline with their calm adherence to their sadistic rules made sense to him; Nikita didn't. And in this world of covert ops, anything you couldn't understand had a good chance of killing you.
Nikita pulled a set of papers out of the folder and slid it to Jim. Glancing down, his eyes went wide as he spotted Blair's name on the familiar papers. "No." Jim growled the word, half pushing himself out of his seat, and the guard at the door stepped forward.
"Whoa, hey, let's just all calm down here," Blair quickly jumped in. "This is nothing worth getting shot in the back over," he said to Jim, his voice desperate.
Jim stood, still leaning over the table as he pushed the enlistment papers toward Blair. The gasp of air told Jim exactly when Blair had figured out what Section was doing.
"This is only an option," Nikita said as she still sat just as calm and cool as ever, not even twitching at Jim's hostility. "Colonel Ellison, your commission can be reactivated, but the government has no such hold over Dr. Sandburg."
"So you want to give them control? No way lady," he snapped. He could hear the guard behind him take another step forward, the man's heartbeat speeding up as he stepped closer.
"Think about the alternative. If the government has no way to legally draft Blair, that leaves them with two options: not drafting him or illegally drafting him."
The truth hit Jim like a punch to the stomach and he sat heavily. "I can't function without him, and if they illegally take him, he'll cause far more problems than he's worth," Jim pointed out quickly.
"You can function without him," Nikita countered. "You have already shown that you can use your senses for weeks even when Dr. Sandburg is out of town."
"I can talk to him over the phone. I'm not under duress in a government facility," Jim countered.
She nodded. "And you haven't finalized a bond between you. We have conducted extensive research into the role of the guide since Dr. Sandburg showed us just how far we had misjudged the abilities of a Sentinel with a dedicated companion. I will be happy to provide all our research which will demonstrate why many agencies do see you as capable of functioning without Dr. Sandburg. However, even if they accept the need for his presence, that does not protect you. It simply means they will need to acquire you illegally."
"Like you did?" Blair asked, and that was not a friendly tone of voice. Nikita turned to him and tilted her head.
"Yes. However, we are an enormous underground organization with information and resources that reach into every government in the world. I am not exaggerating when I say that Section has the power to end governments and redesign the map. We have the ability to allow you to leave once the mission is complete because you cannot leave our intelligence network without leaving the planet."
"It's all about power to you people. The power to play with lives like they're little tinker toys you can shove around on a board. So not cool."
"I agree," Nikita said softly, and that agreement stopped Blair when any other argument would have sent him spinning off into a lecture about power and politics.
"I agree that the power of Section is formidable and potentially dangerous, and that power must be limited. That is why I cannot promise to protect you if your own government comes after you. For me to arbitrarily throw all the resources behind an action against a particular government would change power balances that simply cannot be disturbed. However, if you are an official reserve officer, that would give them a legal way to acquire your services and negate the need for any illicit attempts."
"Man, classic manipulation. We only have your word on any of this. Your word that Alex was dangerous or the NID is interested in Jim. I'm not sure your word is worth anything, lady." Blair was ready to get to his feet, and Jim reached over and laid a hand on his guide's arm. For one second, Blair remained tensed and half out of his seat, but then he sank back down.
"I will have the files sent to your room. You will have access to the internet and government databases so you can check anything you want," Nikita offered.
"Check through your computer system. How can we trust any of this?" Blair took the enlistment papers with his name and shoved them across the table. They flew to the far side where they fluttered to the floor.
"Because if I was trying to manipulate you, I would put your signature on those papers," Nikita pointed out calmly. "I am offering that as an option to try and protect the position of two valuable operatives. If you choose to ignore the offer, that is your choice." Nikita leaned forward, her long fingers tapping on the table top. "However, if the government takes Jim, you have to decide if you would rather go with him or remain behind."
"I'd rather he stayed behind," Jim said firmly. Blair shot him a quick look, and Jim could read the frustration there. Blair hated being left behind, but this was one case where Jim wasn't just being overprotective.
"Your choice," Nikita said, holding her hands up in surrender. "I simply wished for you to understand that this is not a relationship in which we demand your services without offering the protection we promised. Section has taken steps to protect your position any number of times."
"And now you want payment," Blair said smugly as he leaned back and crossed his arms. Jim was pretty much reading the situation the same way, and the power had definitely shifted somewhere along the way. The last time, Section had threatened them with the biggest stick it could find and then offered a small carrot of hope before tossing them back out on the street in Cascade. Now, Nikita was trying to convince them of the rewards of being in Section, and she hadn't threatened them even once. In covert ops, change was never good. Jim wondered just how long this kinder, gentler version of Section had been holding power because he didn't think it would keep power for long.
Nikita tilted her head toward Blair, silently agreeing with him. Then she turned to Jim. "The operation is scheduled for a three-week window. Eight days for briefings and training with your team, five days reconnaissance at the target site, and a seven day window in which to achieve your objective. Before your team comes, I want to brief you on who you will be working with. You will be in command of the mission, and I expect you to take care of the lives of our operatives as well as you guard the life of your guide."
"I've never thoughtlessly or recklessly put men's lives on the line," Jim almost growled. Nikita looked at him for a long second and then nodded and tapped on the controls set into the table.
"Captain Robert Makepeace, a field commander with several citations for meritorious service." A man with sandy brown hair just starting to recede and a square face appeared above the table.
Jim raised his eyebrows at the colonel's insignia on his uniform. "CAPTAIN Makepeace?"
"He lost rank after being convicted of treason against his country," Nikita commented, and Jim nearly choked.
"Treason. No, I don't want him anywhere near Sandburg during this."
Nikita leaned back and considered him, and for the first time, Jim could see that same coldness that had been so much a part of both Michael and Madeline. Here was a woman who would torture him just to get what he wanted. That raw, vicious flash vanished, and again she smiled, although this time it had an edge of annoyance to it. "He acted in a way that he believed was best serving the needs of his country. His actions were neither thoughtless or without official sanction from some segments of the government. However, he also understands that if he double crosses anyone at Section, he will be summarily taken out back and shot in the head. He will not pose a problem."
Nikita hit another button and a woman appeared, short with short blonde hair and a pouty face that made her look younger than she probably was. "Lieutenant Clare Tobias, an engineer specializing in high-tech and reverse engineering. She was part of the same organization that led Makepeace to his treason although they served in separate units and didn't know each other. She was also convicted of treason."
"Nice bunch of teammates here," Blair snorted. Nikita ignored him and flipped to another figure.
"Korporal Miko Bruhn and Grenader Hannu Knudsen are recruits from the Norwegian Defense Force." Both men looked like escapees from a skiing movie with blond hair and huge shoulders. Bruhn had a nasty burn scar down one side of his face, though.
"More traitors?" Blair asked sweetly.
"No. Quite the opposite. An oberstløytnant—a lieutenant colonel—raped a Muslim woman and when he was seen by one of her brothers, this colonel blamed Grenader Knudsen. When Knudsen's corporal attempted to provide an alibi, both men were accused of rape. The situation was degenerating quickly when we faked the men's deaths and offer them a position in Section. Bruhn is excellent with munitions and explosives; Knudsen is security.
Nikita tapped and a new figure appeared in the hologram. This one had reddish hair and a sharp gaze that made Jim look at him twice. He must have been exceptionally good looking when he was young, but now he had a slightly tired expression.
Nikita's heart pounded faster as she offered his name. "Karl Jurgen, Section operative and one of the best. He specializes in interrogation and profiling, but works from the field rather than in our profiling offices."
"You have a relationship with him," Jim guessed.
Nikita looked at him sharply and then glanced over at the guard once before focusing on Jim again. "I once did. I was led to believe he died, and we have never attempted to pursue anything since I took control of Section."
"Whoa, wait, you took control?" Blair blurted out. Jim leaned back, enjoying the slight flush as Nikita finally slipped. She wasn't the professional Michael or Madeline had been, and Jim wasn't sure if this was a good or a bad thing. For the first time since finding Michael in his living room, Jim felt the Section's noose around his neck loosen. They never would have escaped from Michael, but Nikita... she might be a different matter. "Where's Michael?" Blair asked.
Blair's question made Nikita's pupils dilate slightly. The answer to that question definitely distressed her.
Blair opened his mouth, and Jim tightened his hand on Blair's arm. Blair really didn't want to know more. When Blair snapped his mouth closed, Nikita got an almost amused expression.
"Despite your assumptions, he actually did retire. His wife was killed, and he is raising his son as far from covert ops and Section as possible."
"But still on your radar?" Jim prodded. He was fairly sure she was telling the truth, but the more she talked, the more chances he had to either verify her story or catch her in a lie. If Section allowed top line operatives to actually retire, the system had definitely changed.
"As I said, short of leaving the planet, you never leave Section control," Nikita said with a smile. "And that brings us to your mission objective.
"Oh man, no way are we tracking down someone who slipped your leash," Blair snorted.
"I don't have the authority to send you off-planet, and I can find anyone I want on the planet," Nikita said. "However, right now, I'm more concerned about the fact that aliens are trying to establish roots on our planet. Your objective is to identify them and to terminate."
Blair found his voice first, but not until several minutes had passed. "Aliens?" he squeaked. Jim had never heard that particular tone from his guide before.
"You have got to be kidding," Jim said slowly, not sure what game Nikita was playing, but not liking it one bit.
"Your team is arriving. Captain Makepeace will brief the entire team on the next bit," Nikita said with a slightly sadistic smile. Jim was still focusing on her heartbeat, struggling to find some evidence that the woman was lying to him as his new team started walking through the conference room door.
"Makepeace," Nikita offered with a tilt of her head. Jim stood, listening to the man's heart race faster as he saw Nikita sitting at the head of the table. Covering his nervousness, Makepeace stepped into the room and focused on Jim. "This is Jim Ellison," Nikita offered. "He's commanding the mission."
"*He* is." Makepeace made the words into a clear challenge. Even without looking over, Jim could tell that Nikita had an unhappy expression because Makepeace's heart pounded just a little faster as his gaze flicked to her. "Yes ma'am," he offered after an unhappy silence. Jim didn't need sentinel senses to figure out just how Nikita had secured his cooperation. He wondered if Makepeace had been tortured in the same damn chair he had been when he first arrived. Section probably had an entire wing of soundproofed rooms with nice handy torture chairs. But he had to give Makepeace credit. The man remained outwardly calm and even as his heart slowly settled into a regular beat. Of course, that didn't stop the sour stench of fear-soaked hormones from making Jim's nose itch.
"I'm Blair Sandburg." Blair got out of his chair and moved forward, holding out his hand, and Makepeace looked absolutely lost for a second, like he didn't know what to do with a man offering to shake hands.
"Robert Makepeace," he offered in return. Robert... not captain. Jim filed that information away for later. "Do we have a preliminary target, ma'am?" Makepeace asked Nikita.
"The rest of the team is coming," Nikita said, but Makepeace definitely took the words as a rebuke because his heart did a fast half-step before settling back into a rhythm.
"Man, eight days to learn to work with a whole new team, which is better than last time, but still. You know, most literature on sociometric orientation in group dynamics would suggest that eight days is totally not even long enough to set the group dynamics," Blair complained mildly. Yep, stress Blair, and random academic babble just sort of spilled out. Jim still remembered the first day the kid had stayed with him… he'd been nervous about being in Jim's house and had babbled about tribal warriors and street gangs and Senate races, making connections that Jim still didn't understand to this day.
"We tend to employ an empirical-statistical orientation to group dynamics," Nikita answered with an amused smile. Jim focused on the two new team members coming into the room. Karl Jurgen looked older than in the hologram, the first signs of gray in his hair, but from the way the woman next to him smiled up, she still found him attractive. The woman was Clare Tobias. Her hair was longer and darker than in the hologram, but she still had that childlike face as she looked around the room, her eyes carefully avoiding Nikita even as she studied the others, her eyes on Makepeace the longest. The part of Jim's brain that had once commanded made a mental note to make sure she understood that he was the top of the chain of command, not Makepeace. Nikita had the power to force him to work with a traitor, but he wasn't about to let the man take any kind of control over the members of his team.
"Well, yeah, you totally would. But Cartwright and Zander totally overemphasized the behavioral elements. Empirical-statistical and exchange theory are both the last bastions of the 'people as automatons' crowd. So not for me," Blair argued with Nikita. Tobias and Makepeace both looked at Blair uneasily, but Jurgen got an expression of almost amusement on his face as he made eye contact with Jim.
"But the theory is useful in predicting behavior; isn't that the defining characteristic of what's valid?" Nikita asked, one eyebrow up. Jim divided his attention between the last of his arriving team members and Blair's debate with Nikita.
Blair shook his head, his ponytail swinging. "Sadly, the social comparison theory is way more predictive."
"In the subgroups you've studied, I have no doubt of that. Section functions on a much more..." Nikita paused and Jim glanced over at her. She was still amused so Blair hadn't managed to piss her off yet. "... a more egalitarian model."
"Egalitarian?!" Blair almost choked on the word, and even Jim had trouble controlling a smile at that. You tell 'em, he thought to himself as Blair got that intense look he sometimes did right before he ripped some patrol officer a new asshole for using an ethnic slur. "Oh man, what universe are you living in? Section... egalitarian? You are like the epitome of totalitarianism. This place is ready to implode under the collective gravity of the power struggle around here."
Jim watched as Jurgen smiled widely, obviously amused. The ski twins slid into place at the table, one pushing Blair's enlistment papers aside with his foot as they both ignored the debate. Tobias and Makepeace both looked ready to run for the hills. Either those two were the nervous sort, which didn't really seem like the kind Section would recruit, or they'd come out of that torture room pretty recently. Jim still remembered sitting on the cot in that white room, his body aching from drugs and shocks that he couldn't get Madeline to stop administering no matter how truthful he was. He had been pretty skittish at that point, so Makepeace and Tobias might just be showing the normal aftereffects of being welcomed into Section's little family. Jim took his seat and Jurgen sat on the other side of Blair, pulling Tobias down into the chair next to him.
"Certainly someone has to be in charge," Nikita said as she leaned forward. "However, beyond the obvious need for leadership, everyone in Section is equal. You do your job, and not only is the world a little safer, but your life will be easier."
"Don't do your job and you get another visit to the soundproofed rooms?" Blair demanded. "Real egalitarian. Equal opportunity torturers."
"Chief," Jim warned as the tone in the room became a little darker. Nikita leaned back.
"Section takes actions that other agencies do not--but do not ever assume you understand why. Section and every member of Section risks more every day than most people ever will in a lifetime, and the result is a world that hasn't yet self-destructed," Nikita said quietly.
Blair narrowed his eyes, and Jim knew that look. "Typical ingroup-outgroup bias. Feel better about yourself by pretending that the group you belong to has a claim to some glory," he snorted. Nikita leaned back.
"Chief, enough," Jim said firmly. "Makepeace, you have the briefing on the target?" Jim redirected the conversation, his hand gripping Blair's arm hard enough to let Blair know that he seriously needed to shut up before finding himself in one of those sound-proofed rooms. Makepeace was the only one standing now, and Jim firmly ignored his guide's glare as he focused on the man.
"Yes, sir," Makepeace offered, his manner all military even though his eyes had dilated in fear. An image appeared in the hologram of a huge circle stone thing. "The Stargate was discovered several decades ago, but the purpose of it was only discovered a few years ago. The Stargate is part of a system of travel designed by an alien race. The system connects worlds with roughly Earth-type environments. As of right now, representatives from Earth have visited almost a hundred planets."
"No way. Oh man, that's... that's wild," Blair breathed, immediately distracted from his rant. Jim was surprised at the venomous look Makepeace gave Blair, but the expression cleared almost immediately as the captain continued with his lecture. The image changed to a man who looked like a villain straight out of a Flash Gordon comic book.
"Apophis is a member of a race called the goa'uld who have used human mythology and religion to impersonate gods and enslave humanity for thousands of years. When we opened the Stargate, the first team encountered and eliminated a goa'uld impersonating Ra. That gave Apophis a chance to take over much of the known universe, although there are an unknown number of other goa'ulds out there. Since then, Apophis had made several attempts to destroy the planet, including a plan to bring two motherships and decimate the cities from orbit."
Jim couldn't have formed words if he tried. The hologram changed again to show pyramids... fucking pyramids floating in space near the moon. Looking at Nikita, Jim desperately searched for some sign that she was pulling some weird practical joke.
"Wait," Blair interrupted. The hologram paused on the image of a colonel with his hair just starting to gray. "Whoa. Okay, I'm overloading here. These goa'uld were on Earth. They were here? Impersonating our gods?"
Makepeace glanced toward Nikita before answering. "Yes. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptian people rebelled against Ra, but before that, a number of different goa'uld had empires here."
"Apophis... the Greek name for Apep the serpent who constantly desired to eat the sun and destroy the earth... that Apophis?" Blair asked. "This is..." Blair just stopped, obviously even he couldn't come up with words for this, which made Jim feel slightly better for not being able to form any words himself. "Oh man. Is anyone else just slightly freaked and seriously hoping that this is some sort of truly bizarre psych test, you know, test our responses to being totally weirded out?"
Tobias nodded. "I thought that when I first saw the files, but I've been off world. I've seen the sort of tech they have."
"You've been off-world? Off the planet-off world?" Blair looked at her with wide eyes, and Jim couldn't decide if Blair was freaked or excited. He seriously hoped his guide was freaked because the man got in enough trouble on this one planet, so he was vetoing the idea of Blair going to any other planets.
Tobias smiled at him, but Makepeace interrupted the moment by loudly continuing with the briefing. "Colonel Jack O'Neill, Air Force, leads the off-world teams and coordinates planetary defense and the diplomatic mission to find allies and technology against the goa'uld."
Jim could hear the stress in his voice at that, and Tobias lost some of the color from her face. If he had to guess, he would say that Makepeace's and Tobias' convictions for treason had something to do with O'Neill, but Makepeace continued the briefing in a voice so controlled that only a sentinel would have noticed the difference. "He is second-in-command at Cheyenne Mountain, base for Stargate Command, and the leader of a field unit known as SG-1. Information from the mountain suggests that a small number of goa'uld have landed in Eastern Europe and have set up a small base disguised as drug runners."
"Why here?" Blair blurted before Jim had a chance to ask that same question.
Makepeace hesitated for a moment before answering. "The goa'uld are ruled by system lords—snakes who have set themselves up as gods and lead armies of warriors called jaffa. Younger or weaker goa'uld either have to serve one of the system lords or they are vulnerable. By setting up here, they think they're safe from the system lords whose attacks have failed."
"How are we defending the planet?" Jim asked. His voice was more calm than even he expected.
Nikita smiled. "Colonel O'Neill is very good at his job. However, he is a member of the American military, and intel suggests that Stargate Command will not lead an official mission into Slovenia, which leaves the NID as the only other agency preparing to act."
"Local military?" Jim asked. The Yugoslav war had been brutal, and there were sure to be both professional soldiers and mercenaries in the area who could do what Jim suspected Nikita wanted done.
"They are not aware of Gate travel or the current threat inside their borders," Nikita answered.
Jim frowned. "Just how well kept is this secret?"
Nikita gave tilted her head as though considering something for a second before answering. "The American military has not informed anyone. Right now, the president, the joint chiefs, a half dozen money men in Washington, the NID, a few dozen scientists, a few hundred soldiers, and Section are the only ones aware of this situation."
"Any more than that and we'd have a panic. We can't afford to have our off-world missions compromised with in-fighting," Makepeace hurried to add. The man might be a traitor, but he still had some loyalty to the program.
"The conspiracy to top all conspiracies," Blair said so softly that Jim didn't think anyone else heard him.
"The danger is having these things breed. We still aren't entirely certain how the reproduction cycle works, but one female can spawn thousands of little snakes. After they spend some time incubating inside a jaffa's stomach, they can take over a human being by burrowing into the back of the skull and turning it into a host."
Jim sat straight up, but before he could say anything, Blair beat him there. "Host? Host as in these things get in the brain? Okay, now I know this is a psych test. Man, this is a nightmare… a horror movie. No fucking way."
"One of those things got in my friend. I watched him trapped in his own body as a snake took him over. The surgeons tried to remove it, and the thing just burrowed deeper into his brain," Makepeace snapped. "You have no idea what we're fighting here."
"What's our exposure?" Jim asked, forcing himself to stay calm when every instinct in him wanted him to recoil in horror. Blair was right—this was a nightmare.
"Minimal," Nikita broke in. The image of Colonel O'Neill vanished and a snakelike creature with gill/wing things floated in the air above the table. "They don't seem to change hosts very often, which might be due to the fact that they are vulnerable when out of a host and which might equally be some cultural taboo against changing bodies of which we are not aware. Profilers are severely limited in the information that has been gathered so far. Dr. Sandburg, Jurgen… you are to observe any targets, making sociological observations to help the profilers better predict goa'uld behavior in the future. If Stargate Command ever fails, we will be the last line of defense, and we need to be prepared. Colonel Ellison, the rest of your team will focus on first identifying all targets and then eliminating them. If the team is identified, eliminate the targets you have access to, but as long as you have not been identified, give Sandburg and Jurgen time to make any pertinent observations."
"How do we identify the targets?" Jim asked. Blair reached over and rested his hand on Jim's arm, and Jim could almost hear Blair's thoughts. Jim had once told Section that he would die before becoming their attack dog, but for these creatures, he was willing to make an exception.
"We can't, Colonel," Nikita admitted, "not without using technology that would immediately reveal your presence; however, you can. The last sentinel team who encountered a goa'uld was sent to observe one who has been on earth for a long period of time." The hologram shimmered to show a dark eyed man with floppy hair and a neatly trimmed beard that screamed 'villain.' These aliens had obviously watched far too much Flash Gordon before trying to infiltrate Earth culture. "This is Seth. He's considered a low-priority target and what psychological data we do have comes from observation of his compound. He appears to be both solitary and unwilling to attract any attention. However, when our sentinel team came within a mile, the sentinel began to exhibit signs of distress. Near the compound, the sentinel lost control and attempted to enter the compound and kill the goa'uld with his bare hands. His guide barely managed to pull him out, and she sustained a serious injury."
"No way." Blair shook his head. "No way are you sending him in if this is going to—"
"Enough," Jim said, cutting him off.
"Not if you're considering—"
"Enough, Chief," Jim growled as he turned to his obstinate guide. Blair opened his mouth, and Jim leaned forward. "I've heard your objections, and I am officially ordering you down." Jim made his words harsh, far more harsh than he would ever speak to Blair, at least not without expecting immediate and vicious retaliation in the form of either a lecture or hair remover in his shampoo. He just hoped Blair got the message because he could not afford to have his command questioned in front of these people.
Blair blinked at him in surprise for a second, his face pinking as that brain of his processed the fact that everyone in the room was watching his reaction. "Yes, sir," Blair managed with only a touch of sarcasm.
"What weaponry can we expect on the aliens' part?" Jim said as he smoothly turned back to Nikita.
He had no illusions about Blair letting this subject drop, but hopefully he would be willing to have it in private where the rest of the team wasn't watching. Already Jim could feel the tensions. Makepeace resented Jim's authority and was playing nice only because he feared Nikita more than he hated Jim. Tobias had that same fear of Nikita, but in her case, she translated that into a jumpiness that left her suspiciously watching while her fingers clutched the chair tightly. Bruhn and Knudsen were more passive, but Knudsen was definitely watching Bruhn for his cues, so that was another person who would hesitate to follow orders, listening to Jim only once he confirmed through Bruhn that the order should be followed, and in combat, that could mean precious seconds lost. Jurgen… he was the wildcard. He just looked amused. If this were the Army, Jim would outright refuse to take a team like this into the field, and now he had just days of training in order to get them all to follow his command. Jim was getting that same sinking feeling he'd felt before the Peru mission.
Nikita paused before answering, studying Jim closely for several seconds. "Bruhn has that report, but before I turn the briefing over to him, I want to point out that you should expect resistance on two fronts: the aliens and the NID."
"The NID," Jim said flatly, and he could hear Tobias' heart speed up again. Makepeace had a perfectly calm face and his heart was so steady that Jim suspected the man was using covert techniques designed to defeat polygraphs. So, that was one member of the team who knew exactly what a sentinel could do. Jim filed that away as one more piece of information on his team. He truly needed full jackets on these people before taking them into battle.
"The NID has a stated objective to capture and study the goa'uld. Some sources suggest they are interested in breeding."
"What?" Tobias blurted. "No, they want to defeat the goa'uld, not breed more." Jim glanced over as Tobias stared at Nikita with a combination of denial and anger for just a second. Then she blushed deeply and dropped her gaze to the table as she realized just who she was calling a liar.
Nikita didn't seem offended. "The NID is interested in the goa'uld's ability to heal and strengthen the human body and the genetic memories that are passed from one generation to another."
"Genetic memories?" Blair echoed.
"The NID would like access to those memories even if there is no current data on whether the memories are specific enough to include details such as technology or whether the memories are more cultural. However, Section has determined that keeping a goa'uld in custody at this point carries too high of a risk. We are unaware of their full potential either defensively or offensively, and bringing one into the middle of an operation could prove fatal. That analysis was shared with the NID and rejected, so if your mission is compromised by the NID in any way, you are authorized to cancel all NID operatives."
"Oh man, does she mean…" Blair let his words trail off as he considered the meaning of that phrase. Jim clenched his jaw at the thought of doing that kind of work again, of putting himself and his team up against human beings who had been ordered into the field. He wasn't as comfortable with that as he was with the idea of eliminating the aliens who had set up on earth; however, Nikita wasn't giving him much choice in the matter.
Jim nodded. After a second of silence, Miko Bruhn with with scarred face stood up and a hologram of a strange curved weapon appeared above the table. "The zat'n'ktel…" he started, and Jim focused on the image. If he had to go up against this stuff, he needed to know exactly what he and his guide were getting into.
Blair dropped onto one of the beds and pulled his knees up. He wanted to pace, but one pacing person per room was a rule, and Jim was definitely filling their quota, so instead he fingered the small talisman he'd worn since shortly after getting released by Section the first time around. The general panic of earlier had vanished under a very specific, very focused panic all centered around Jim. Michael and Madeline had understood that a Sentinel was instinctively driven to protect, and even the NID seemed to have figured that out, but now Nikita was ordering Jim to go in and execute sentient creatures. Even more--she wanted him to execute sentient creatures who were probably going to set off all of Jim's instincts. Section officially sucked.
Even though he wanted nothing more than to talk about all this, Blair rested his chin on his knees and waited for Jim to give some sort of sign that he had come out of this weird soldier-mode he had going. When Jim had ordered him to shut up, Blair had felt the hot flare of embarrassment and pain. Oh, he understood why Jim had done it, but it didn't actually erase how hurt he felt. And he really didn't need to give Jim a reason to repeat that bad behavior in private where Blair would have to hurt the man. No one ordered him around. Well, Section did, but that was so not the same thing.
Jim stopped near the door, his back still stiff as he cocked his head. Recognizing the stance, Blair got up and moved to Jim's side, resting his hand on Jim's back. After a second, Jim straightened up.
"Anything?" Blair asked softly.
Jim sighed heavily. "Just the sound of ordinance. We're closer to the firing range than last time," Jim said before he went over to the bed and sagged, the military stiffness that had been holding him up draining out.
"Seriously shitty," Blair pointed out as he sat next to Jim.
Jim gave him a dirty look, one that was all Jim Ellison and none of that cold soldier who had replaced Jim for a while out in that briefing room. "Shitty doesn't even cover it, Chief."
"Nope," Blair agreed. The silence felt awkward between them, and Blair wished he knew the words to use to start this conversation. Oh, he had plenty of words… things like, 'What the fuck are you thinking agreeing to this,' but Jim probably wouldn't react very well.
"I'm sorry," Jim said softly, interrupting Blair's thoughts, and before Blair could even open his mouth in surprise, Jim had reached out and pulled him close in a one-armed hug.
"Oh man, this is not your fault—except for giving them the dissertation which is totally your fault." Blair thought about that for a second. "And except where you just agreed to go on a mission to execute aliens. I mean, for all we know, Section is lying about everything and these guys are just trying to find a nice place to retire. Maybe for them Earth is like Florida and we've just been ordered to take out the alien equivalent of Ira and Edna Wiezman from Hoboken."
For a second, Jim scrubbed his face with his hand, so at least Blair knew Jim was considering what he said. After getting told to 'shut up' in the middle of the briefing, Blair hadn't been entirely sure Jim would listen to his fears. "Nikita wasn't lying, and neither was Makepeace," Jim said slowly.
"Fine. Maybe they're wrong then. This whole secret-military system they have set up totally precludes double checking conclusions against an independent third-party. Maybe their paranoia has just gotten them twisted around."
"If that's the case, then we'll have a few days on the ground to do our own recon, but Blair, we can't walk in there expecting to shake hands and make nice," Jim pointed out.
"See? See, thinking like that totally reinforces preconceived notions. We walk in there expecting them to be bad guys, and we interpret everything through this lens that says, 'Whoa, bad guy here,' and then our objectivity is shot."
"Whoa, bad guy here?" Jim repeated, the corner of his mouth tightening suspiciously.
"You're on thin ice with me right now, so if you laugh, you had better be prepared to guard your personal care products or risk finding Nair in your shampoo," Blair threatened. Unfortunately, the threat just made Jim slip from almost smile into an out-and-out smirk as he rested a hand on Blair's shoulder.
"No laughing, Chief," Jim promised in a voice that sounded a little too close to a laugh, but then his face got more serious. "But what Makepeace said about one of these things getting into his friend—he was telling the truth. If these things can take over a person's body, they're on the hostile list." Jim's jaw tightened for a second, bulging as Jim struggled with some inner emotion. It sometimes amazed Blair that other people thought Jim was so unreadable because it seemed like every emotion Jim felt showed up in his jaw. "I could handle this mission a whole lot easier if I knew you were somewhere safe," Jim eventually stopped grinding his teeth to say.
Blair snorted. Give Jim a nice controllable environment… a drug runner or a car thief ring… and Jim was just as happy to throw Blair out there with a pat on the head and an undercover assignment. But let him feel just one bit out of control, and the man reverted to 'stay in the truck.' At least Jim was predictable even if Blair had no idea what to fucking expect out of Section from one second to the next. And the violent thoughts he was having about Nikita were wrecking havoc on his karma. He fingered the crystal around his neck.
"Jim, just listen to me, man. I'm not saying that the thing in Makepeace's friend was an Ira or Edna Wiezman from Hoboken. I'm thinking that burrowing into someone else's brain without an invitation pretty much puts you in the bad guy column. But these guys who've landed here… what damage have they done? This Seth… Section said he's been here a long time, but he obviously isn't trying to take over the world or burrowing into random people's brains because that would leaked to the press. So maybe we have a few more retirees looking for a quiet place to drop out of the rat race."
"Chief, are you listening to yourself?" Jim demanded, and Blair scooted back an inch and crossed his arms. He hated it when Jim pulled this 'me-mature, you-flake' shit on him.
"Unlike some people, I actually do think about what I'm saying before it falls out of my mouth," Blair snapped back, and at least Jim had the grace to get a little flushed.
"These things burrow in brains."
"And they cause people to live longer and remember an entire alien culture."
Jim's face got that cold, hard expression that made Blair check the exits and mentally map which friends he could hang with until Jim calmed down, but that wasn't exactly an option here. "Listen Darwin, they use humans as hosts. They take over fucking bodies. They're bad guys."
"The one who took over Makepeace's friend? Absolutely. But how do we know that these guys we're going after weren't invited into the bodies they're using. Oh man, I can name you a dozen anthropology students who would be having a battle royale for the right to sign up as a host."
"What happened to this being a nightmare?"
"What happened to you listening to my opinion?"
"What?" Jim stood and started pacing again. "Look Sandburg, I am listening to your opinion, and when we're in position, I'm willing to keep an open mind. But considering they use humans as hosts and considering that they set Sentinel instincts on edge, I'm not expecting a round of Kum Ba Yah. "
"Shit." Blair dropped his head into his hands and let his hair hang down around him. Jim was right. If these things set off a Sentinel's protective instincts, then something in a Sentinel recognized them as an inherent threat, maybe even some sort of genetic memory going back to when these things were on Earth before. God, Jim wasn't the one who was losing objectivity here, he was. He was letting wishful thinking cloud his judgment.
"Chief?" Jim's hand rested on his back and Blair took several deep breaths and tried to center himself. "Blair, you know I respect your opinion, and I will keep this conversation in mind. I'll try not to kill Ira and Edna Wiez-liens."
Blair nodded and sat up, looking over at Jim who was definitely looking worried. "Oh man, I just want them to be good guys, you know?"
"It's one of your best traits, Chief, this need to see the best in people."
"Yeah, but it makes me do stupid shit. And right now, I just…" Blair took a deep breath. "I don't want to be part of an execution squad. I don't want you to be part of an execution squad."
"God, Chief." Jim made the whispered word as a prayer as he dropped onto the bed and pulled Blair into a one-armed hug. "I’m so sorry."
Blair leaned into the embrace, closing his eyes as he fought a storm of emotions all raging for his attention. "Hey, so not your fault."
"I'm the Sentinel. You're just getting dragged along for the ride, and most people would have moved out and abandoned me long before this, so I guess I owe you something… an apology, a thank you… a tune up on that piece of shit you call a car." Jim gave a crooked smile and shrugged, and Blair choked as the unexpected humor broke the mood. Jim chuckled with him, the arm around Blair's shoulder's tightening. "We'll make it through, and remember, your only part in this is to observe and record behaviors. That's what you focus on."
"While you're focusing on killing them," Blair sighed.
"Blair…" Jim stopped and cleared his throat as his arm dropped away from Blair. "This isn't exactly the first time I've done this kind of mission."
"Oh yeah, I got that," Blair nodded. "That's why they think you're different. You were covert ops before you were a Sentinel, so they think you can do the nasty work."
"And I probably can. It's a matter of doing what you have to and not thinking about it too much, but if I have to stop and discuss every step with you…" Jim stopped again, but Blair got the message clear enough. Emotionally, Jim couldn't handle having to justify his actions.
"It's just a job, right?" Blair asked. Jim patted his knee and then let his hand rest there on Blair's leg.
"I will think about what you've said, but you have to trust me to make the right call in the field."
"Oh man, you know I trust you," Blair immediately blurted. "I have followed you into some pretty screwed up situations because I totally trusted you to have some plan for getting us out. I jumped out of a helicopter in the middle of the night without a parachute because you told me to, so I think I have the trust part covered." Blair gave a shivered as he remembered that night—the night they had helped Michael rescue Nikita and had then made their unsuccessful escape attempt.
"We have a bigger problem here than trust, though," Jim said softly, and the tone made the hairs on Blair's neck stand up. "This team…"
"Completely fucked up. Oh man, they are the definition of dysfunctional."
"You caught that, huh?" Jim smiled, and Blair could almost convince himself that he wasn't scared shitless. After years, he had gotten good at lying to himself. He could almost convince himself that he didn't care about what the other cops whispered when they didn't know he was around, he could almost convince himself that excitement and not fear made him tremble when the gunfire started, and he could almost convince himself that he loved Jim like a brother when the man smiled at him like that. Self-deception, thy name is Sandburg.
"How could I not catch that? Karl Jurgen has a totally inappropriate affect, Bruhn and Knudsen seem pretty freaking co-dependent, and Makepeace hates my guts." Blair made a face and then shrugged. He worked with all kinds of people who didn't like him, and it hadn't stopped him from going to the station or speaking his mind when some officer was out of line. His job was to help the department break the cycle of victimization and abuse, and if taking an officer out into a hallway to rip him a new asshole for calling some woman a 'cheap whore' earned him a little hatred from the rank and file, he didn't really care. And honestly, he didn't care about Makepeace's issues either. "Not that I care about Makepeace hating my guts."
"I care," Jim growled. "He'll be respectful or he'll answer to me."
"You know, when I said all that stuff about you as a Blessed Protector, I was joking… you know that, right?" Blair asked.
Jim got a wry smile and reached over to ruffle Blair's hair. "Yeah, but he has to understand that you're my second-in-command. I don't like the lack of ranks here."
"Maybe I should sign those enrollment papers. Of course, then I'd be Lieutenant Sandburg, which really wouldn't help me much with Captain Makepeace, would it?"
"Traitor Makepeace," Jim pointed out. "I hope they have a more interesting dinner menu this time around," he said in a sudden change of topic that clearly ended the discussion of missions and teams. Blair sighed and wandered back to his bed as Jim thumbed through the notebook that had been left next to the phone. There were definitely more pages in the 'room service' book this time around, but Blair focused on the neat blue folders lined up on his bed in exactly the same location that the gun manuals were on Jim's bed, like Section's idea of those little mints that good hotels left on your pillow.
"Efficacy of aromahormonaltherapy for androstenol withdrawl in Sentinels."
"The Whitten effect in proximal female secondary populations."
" Estratetraenol and androstenol interactions in cross-sex Sentinel pairings."
Blair fanned the reports out so that he could read more of the titles.
"Chief, you okay?" Jim asked. "You're heart's racing."
"Oh man, I'm more than okay," Blair said as he stared down at the pile of neatly typed reports. Jim came over and glanced at the reports spread across the bed.
"Am I going to convince you to turn off the light and get any sleep before we have to report in the morning?" Jim asked wryly. Blair picked up a report and flipped open to the précis, scanning the neat conclusions drawn by scientists who'd had access to an entire population of Sentinels. Eighteen in this sample size: fifteen male and three female. Blair grabbed another and checked it. Twenty-one Sentinels" fifteen male and six female. Blair felt like a kid in a candy store.
Behind him, Jim gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm not even going to bother asking you what you want for dinner, but you'd better believe you're going to eat something when it comes." Blair shoved most of the reports to one side and grabbed a pen as he started reading about the interactions of various pheromones when male and female Sentinels met face to face. Oh man. This… this was almost worth being kidnapped for.
"You can take the scientist out of the university, but he's still annoyingly oblivious the minute he gets his hands on a research paper," Jim sighed as he picked up to phone to order dinner.
The black-shirted operative opponent slid out of his cover, bringing his zat up as he quickly moved to take new cover behind a pillar. Jim silently cursed, broke position and moved to cover the new man even as he tried to figure out who the operative was targeting. No one should be there. As he moved, he caught sight of brown curls through the fonds of a squat palm plant.
The black shirt came around the opposite side of the pillar, his zat already held out, and Jim tightened his finger on the trigger, flinching as the air electrified and made the hair on his arm stand up. Blue trails flickered across the man's body as he jerked forward, twitched and fell to the ground.
"Sandburg!" Jim snapped, and Blair's head popped up with that wide-eyed expression that made it so hard to chew the man out, but this was the third time he'd screwed up, which put him one up on Tobias. When they'd been training with Michael, Blair had learned this shit at a speed that had amazed Jim, but now Blair was worse than in his first year as a ride-along.
"Which simulation are we running?" Jim demanded, his arms crossed as he glared at his guide, and there was the slow blush as Blair glanced around. One by one, the others stood up from their own positions as they realized the training simulation had officially ended. Karl Jurgen, Blair's supposed partner during this maneuver was already twenty yards farther, and Blair was completely out of position. Jim sincerely hoped that he could keep the situation from turning into a firefight where Blair had to cover someone, but it could happen. It could happen, and he needed to know that Blair had his head in the game.
"Oh man, okay, I'm supposed to be with Karl. I'm sorry… I'm just not really with it today, you know?" Blair looked around at the various members of the… Jim hesitated to call them a team. Clare Tobias had an expression of sympathy on her face and Karl Jurgen was studying Blair with that almost amused expression he so often had. Makepeace, however, looked like Simon after four hours of meetings with the mayor. His aggression set Jim's teeth on edge, but rather than risk alienating the man, he glared at the black-shirted operative now groaning his way back to consciousness before glaring at his guide.
"You should have been in position, and then I wouldn't have had to shoot someone. This isn't a game, Chief." Jim could feel his anger surge, fed by the worry that Blair wasn't taking this seriously enough. Taking a deep breath, Jim waited to see if anyone was going to try to jump to Blair's defense. While he couldn't allow them to make excuses for his very-obviously distracted guide, an attempt to defend him would at least show some sign of camaraderie.
Blair blushed and then shoved his zat gun back into its holster. "I said I'm sorry." Blair's voice had that tight edge that warned of a coming explosion, and Jim could feel his guts knot. The last thing he needed was for Blair to get his righteous indignation going. The guys at the station might think of Blair as being laid back, but Jim knew that the man had a temper and if pushed far enough, he turned into a vicious verbal time bomb ready to explode.
"Sandburg, Knudsen, sit this one out. In fact, take Tobias and Jurgen with you and get something to eat while we run a few additional simulations," Jim ordered as he split the team. Bruhn and Knudsen exchanged a quick glance and Makepeace's already sour expression turned a shade more sour.
"Jim, I'm okay. I promise, I'll do better next time," Blair quickly vowed with an almost desperation that Jim could read in his face.
"It's fine, Chief. Just get something to eat, do whatever you do to get your head back in the game, and come back ready to work in an hour."
Blair stared at him for a second, for long enough that the others had all gathered near the door leading out of the massive training room. "Chief, just take a break," Jim said more softly, and slowly Blair nodded.
"Hey, I could use some lunch anyway," he shrugged as he headed for the door. Tobias reached out and touched Blair's arm, and Blair smiled at the woman before the small group headed out into the corridor.
The door had no more swung shut before Makepeace had moved to a position near Jim. "Sir, they are not battle ready, Sandburg and Tobias in particular. We should reconfigure the team without them."
"I didn't ask your opinion, soldier," Jim commented coldly. Something had Blair distracted today, but then he'd been up most of the night reading those damn reports, so that something might be as simple as a lack of sleep. Jim allowed his hearing to track Blair through the halls of Section to the nearby communal area where the others were ordering some food. Tobias was nervous. Her mistakes had been more random—sometimes rushing the plan and other times totally missing her cue. And Knudsen was still hesitant to follow Jim's orders.
"Sandburg's a liability."
"Stand down, Captain," Jim snapped.
"Colonel Ellison." Makepeace sounded ready to blow.
"I said stand down." Jim turned and glared at the man, daring him to take this just one step farther. Bruhn looked from one to the other in concern until Makepeace finally nodded and stiffened.
Jim scrubbed his face and struggled with his own fraying temper. If he had to guess, he'd say that Knudsen and Bruhn were Nikita's fallbacks… ready to report on any problems and possibly assassinate any member of the team going outside Section guidelines. Jim had seen Michael shoot a member of his own team in the back of the head for not following an order—and a rather trivial order at that—so Jim had no illusions about Section's ruthlessness. And Nikita had to know that Jim would never take that kind of disciplinary action, so it made sense that someone on the team would. Getting angry with Makepeace would simply put the man's life in danger and possibly convince Nikita that none of them were capable of handling this mission. Jim didn't really want to find out what failure led to.
He took a deep breath and continued with a calmness that he didn't feel. "Our mission is to get Sandburg and Jurgen as close as possible for as long as possible. Bruhn, let's run simulation five without you trying to watch Knudsen. Makepeace, you have point," Jim said as he started walking back toward the far end of the football sized room. "Scenario five," he called out to the Section operatives playing hostiles and the techs running the holograms and pyrotechnics.
"Yes, sir," Knudsen barked the words out like a recruit in bootcamp and Jim resisted an urge to just go back to his room and shut himself in. They weren't a team. They weren't going to be a team in a few days.
Listening in on the other half of their team, Jim could hear Blair's voice rattling on about how he was usually much better with missions. No one was rushing to reassure him. Jim gritted his teeth and spent a moment listening to that distant conversation.
"So, Hannu? Isn't that a girl's name? Man, that must not be such a easy name for a soldier to have, huh?" Blair asked. Jim flinched and wondered if he was going to have to go rescue his guide. He didn't feel any easier when a long silence followed.
"Blair... that must not be such an easy name for a man to have," Knudsen finally retorted.
Blair immediately began laughing, the sound bouncing and skittering on the concrete and steel separating Jim from his guide. "Oh man, you have no idea. I learned to talk fast and run faster when I was a kid, but it's not like I have a whole lot of manliness to defend. I let the alpha dogs bash their heads into each other while I just watch from a safe distance, anyway. But you? You like ooze testosterone."
"I... I ooze testosterone?" Jim knew that Knudsen's English was perfect, so he was guessing the confusion he could hear was because the man was trying to understand Sandburg.
"Totally," Blair agreed enthusiastically.
"I actually have had no trouble with the name. Hanne is common enough for a woman, but Hannu is Finnish. I am named after my grandfather."
"Ah. Cool. Blair means 'dweller of the plains and fields.' Mom was totally into wandering the earth and getting in touch with her spiritual truths, so she wanted to give me a name that would remind me to do the same. Of course, then I went and hooked up with a cop and started taking on gunmen with water hoses and vending machines, so I'm not so sure it worked."
Jim could hear the disbelief in the silence, but then if he hadn't been there for Blair's adventures in creative weaponry, he probably wouldn't believe it either. And then without taking a breath, Blair was off on how his necklace was topaz, which had supposed mystical properties to sharpen thinking and encourage both creativity and pragmatism. When Blair then went on the placebo effect of psychological talismans, Jim made a mental note to pin his guide down later and figure out what was running through the man's head to get him so worked up. Luckily Tobias was off on the refractive properties of gemstones and Jurgen was happily chatting away about psychological crap. He should have known that Blair would win over the two scientists even if Makepeace clearly still had issues. Makepeace's issues had issues when it came to Blair.
Relegating his guide to the back of his mind, Jim ran the scenario with just Makepeace and Bruhn, watching as the two made it through four checkpoints before Bruhn got tagged. Unlike traditional war games, the opposition was using live fire, and the zat blast caught Bruhn in the middle of his stride so that the jolt make him jerk upright and then fly forward off a step and toward the ground helplessly.
"Hold fire," Jim called as he trotted out from behind his cover, shoving his own zat back into its holster as he hurried to check on the man.
Off to the side, Makepeace was frowning, but Jim didn't have time for the hardass Marine. No way could Makepeace have made colonel if he didn't know how to build a team, but the way he pounced on every mistake was putting everyone on edge. Kneeling next to Bruhn, Jim turned the man's head to check out the damage from the fall. He groaned and started twitching his way back to consciousness when one of the Section opposition members handed him a damp rag.
"You're going to have one hell of a swollen nose tomorrow," Jim said as Bruhn blinked. He handed over the cloth, and Bruhn reached up and wiped the blood off his face as he rolled to his side.
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't see him."
"It's okay. Cooper's a sneaky one," Jim said as he nodded at the Section man who had stepped back as the opposition team in black waited to see what Jim would order. "We're all making mistakes at this point. Let's call it for the day and get an early start tomorrow."
"Sir? We've only been at it for four hours," Makepeace argued. Jim didn't even acknowledge the complaint as he helped Bruhn up. Bruhn's eyes watered a bit, which didn't surprise Jim considering that his nose was still trickling blood. The shock of a zat was bad enough, but falling on your face definitely deserved some time off.
"Why don't you head to medical and see if they can get you cleaned up so you don't look like a mugging victim tomorrow," Jim suggested.
"I'm fine, sir," Bruhn immediately protested.
"I know you are soldier, but you're going to be badly bruised, and medical can minimize that bruising. That wasn't a request." Jim took his hand off Bruhn's arm and gave him a stern look.
"Yes, sir," Bruhn quickly answered as he pressed the cloth to his nose and headed for the exit.
"Are we dismissed sir?" one of the black-shirted operatives asked… Jim thought it was Itzhak, but he'd met so many people that he couldn't be sure. Blair would know.
"Yeah, let's knock off and meet here tomorrow at 0600 hours," Jim said, knowing that Blair was going to have a fit, but they really did need serious time practicing. "Have tech support sent all reports from the mission to my quarters."
"Jason will want to debrief personally," the man suggested hesitantly.
"Then have him call my quarters, but I want those reports delivered," Jim ordered as he turned and headed for the door. If he was supposed to be a commander, he had to take command, and between the Section operatives who only nominally obeyed and team members who were clearly questioning his authority, he wasn't having much success.
Walking down the hall, Jim ignored Makepeace shadowing him and swiped his security card through the reader and opened the door to the lounge. Jurgen and Tobias were sitting hip to hip right across from Blair who was talking about the eating patterns of the Cofan tribes of Ecuador and Colombia, poking the air with his fork. Knudsen sat a little separate from them, eating his fish and watching the others carefully. When Jim and Makepeace came in, Knudsen studied them, his eyebrows lowering in concern when Bruhn didn't follow.
"He fell and bruised his face. I sent him to medical," Jim said to the man before even greeting anyone else. Knudsen stood up. "Go check on him," Jim suggested as he jerked his head toward the door. Knudsen didn't need a second invitation; he dropped his fork and headed out of the lounge immediately.
"Will he be alright?" Jurgen asked, and at least the man was showing some concern. Blair looked outright sick with worry, which didn't surprise Jim at all.
"Oh man, what happened?" Blair asked before Jim could answer. Jim stood beside his guide and stole a few French fries off his plate.
"He got zatted and fell down some stairs. Training accidents happen," Jim shrugged. A white-uniformed server with gray hair came through the far door to take their meal orders, and Jim ordered a large meal for himself even while stealing Blair's food.
"You could wait for your own fries," Blair complained once the server had gone.
"They always taste better when I steal yours," Jim teased as he sat down next to Blair. "So, has he been boring you with that mystical crystals crap?" Jim asked the other two. Tobias' mouth just about fell open, but Jurgen just gave a huff of laughter.
"Dr. Sandburg is a fascinating man," the profiler offered as he looked from Jim to Blair and back again. Oh yeah, Jim definitely had the impression that the man knew more than he was saying.
Tobias was still shaking her head in disbelief. "But if you were training, how could you have heard that? The enhancement of senses I understand, but the dispersal rate of the sound waves with the physical barriers between the two of you should have prevented any sort of eavesdropping." Clare Tobias stared at him, her pixy face clearly shocked and confused. Blair just looked at Jim with just as much confusion but for a totally different reason, and Jim gave his guide a little shrug. Section knew all about his senses; the team needed to understand as well.
"It's impossible," Tobias said quietly, and that was the word that was guaranteed to set Blair off.
"No way," Blair told Tobias after a brief, shocked pause. "Physical barriers are like totally meaningless. Jim's hearing can interpret the echoes off physical barriers and analyze each sound wave without the two distortions cancelling each other. We did a whole series of tests when we were working on overcoming white noise generators," Blair said enthusiastically.
"You can hear past white noise? Consistently?" Jurgen leaned forward and studied them even more carefully. Jim just reached over and stole more of Blair's fries.
"Oh man, if you're going to steal something, steal the carrots. Vegetables are our friends," Blair complained without trying to actually stop Jim from grabbing more.
Jurgen leaned back in his chair, and Jim chewed on another fry as Tobias finally got her mouth closed. "That's remarkable."
"Coming from a woman who sees aliens as normal, I'm not sure how to take that," Jim joked, finally feeling some of the tension easing in the room. Makepeace continued to sit silent, but at least four of them were talking.
"Only as a compliment."
"I'm more fascinated with Dr. Sandburg's coaching," Jurgen offered as he leaned forward again—always moving. "Dr. Sandburg, if you have taught Jim to listen past white noise, then you truly are remarkable considering--."
"It's not like I do anything," Blair said quickly as he shrugged. "Jim's the one with the hearing." Jim could smell the distress starting to poison the air around Blair with a sharp stink.
"Dr. Sandburg, I find it amazing that you have taught Section a lesson about not underestimating the companion, and yet you find it so easy to underestimate yourself. For someone with such wisdom and insight, you are a conundrum," Jergen said with a wry smile as he leaned his chin on his hand.
Blair opened his mouth to say something back, and Jim caught Blair by one arm and stood up. "Right now, Blair and I need to have a little talk. We'll be right back, so just give us a second," Jim assured them before anyone could go and suggest they go back to quarters. To come together as a team, they needed to just talk and to trust each other with information that would start to built trust, but he couldn't concentrate on small talk when Blair's distraction had obviously just turned into something darker.
"But—" Blair started, but Jim had pulled him out of the room before he could even form a protest. In the hallway, Jim let go of Blair's arm and waited for the explosion.
"Oh man, that was so not cool. If you want to talk, then you can ask to talk, not grab me like some fucking kid you're pulling out of the room," Blair snapped. Jim leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms, waiting for Blair to get past the distracters and fess up to whatever was bugging him. Blair crossed his arms and glared right back.
"Well?" Blair finally demanded.
"You're the one who's off his game and now smelling of fear. You want to tell me what's going on?" Jim just waited as silence filled the corridor.
"What? You take the fucking cake. I'm in the middle of secret conspiracy central here, and you wonder why I'm freaking out? Cut me some slack, already."
Blair turned to storm back to the breakroom, and Jim caught him by the arm and yanked him back. "Oh no, you were in there discussing the magical, mystical properties of topaz half an hour ago. Now you're freaking out. Talk to me, Chief."
"Spiritual," Blair said mulishly.
"What?" Jim blinked as he tried to figure out where he'd lost the conversation, but it was a common feeling whenever he was around Blair.
"Topaz. It's a spiritual property, a way to remind myself that I have to think clearly and be practical. It's just a psychological focus," Blair explained, slipping neatly from the anger distraction to the lecture-mode distraction. Jim had always thought of himself as an intelligent, insightful man, but it had taken him two years to figure out just how many ways his guide had to manipulate the world, including him.
"Forget it, Chief. I don't care if topaz is spiritual or sexual. I want to know what has you upset."
Blair froze, his scent growing even sharper as he stared at Jim with wide, blue eyes.
"No way. No. No, I cannot do this now. This is too freaking weird," Blair muttered, and Jim started feeling a sense of dread. Blair never panicked until after the crisis was over, so if Blair was losing it, Jim could feel a very real need to panic clawing up his own guts.
"Chief, you're really worrying me here."
"Jim, I don't even know where to start. I mean, I can't."
Jim responded to Blair's attempts to physically back away by grabbing his guide and pinning him against the wall with his own body, his chest pressing into Blair's chest and his hands resting on either side.
"We need to trust each other. You need to trust me. Blair, I need you by my side in this or I can't pull this off," Jim said, barely breathing the words in Blair's ear and still aware of how dangerous they were. Blair was almost shaking. "Blair, what the hell has you so spooked?"
"Oh, man. Fuck."
"Blair, does this have anything to do with the reports you read last night?" Jim waited, leaning his weight into Blair to silently warn him that they were discussing this even if he had to sit on Blair. Even without an answer, Jim knew he was on the right track because Blair smelled of fear and sweat. "Take this one thing at a time. Tell me one thing from those reports last night," Jim urged.
"Sentinels are addicted to pheromones," Blair blurted. Jim took a step back in surprise, and Blair glanced down the hall as though considering running for it. Reaching out, Jim caught his arm and pulled Blair close.
"Okay, what do you mean addicted?" Jim asked, struggling to stay calm as dark fears whispered… reminded him of Laura and Lila and Veronica and even Caroline. He fought down a gut-level urge to just deny and attack. He might have except in the middle of Section, he couldn't afford to explode.
"Where's the Ellison denial and anger?" Blair asked, looking up at Jim. "I mean, this is totally attacking your sense of control, and let's be honest: you aren't always the most rational when it comes to control issues."
"I'm trying to be rational," Jim said tightly as he had to rein in another stab of anger. "Just explain what you mean by addicted."
"Addicted," Blair said with a snort. "Addicted as in you need pheromones, initially to keep the on-line senses stabilized but then eventually just good old fashioned addicted--medical withdrawal if you don't have access to pheromones type addicted."
"Any pheromones or a particular one?" Jim asked suspiciously and suddenly a few things started making a strange sort of sense.
"Oh man, that way lays the weirdness."
Jim closed his eyes and struggled to take a few deep breaths as he realized where Blair was going. Fighting every instinct, he let go of his guide and took a step back. It explained the fear. "Blair, I’m not going to take this farther than you're willing to go just because Section has told you that a Sentinel-guide relationship is sexual. I know you're not gay, so if Section thinks we're having sex just to get my senses to work better or because I'm addicted and out of control, they're wrong. We're friends, and I wouldn't do that." Jim kept his voice low and calm as he tried to will Blair to believe him. If Blair ran for it and never wanted to see him again, Jim would understand. He would do his best to blow Section to kingdom come for dropping this little bomb in their laps, but he'd understand Blair's fear and respect his choice.
"Buddy, you have issues," Blair huffed, and suddenly Jim totally lost track of the conversation again. Blair was supposed to be nervous, afraid of Jim; instead he was in Jim's face poking him in the chest. "I'm the one who's had a thing for you since the day I saw you in the hospital. I'm fucking horny for you, and me leaking pheromones into the air hijacked your Sentinel physiology, which so totally explains why you let me move Larry into the loft because, man, that was so out of character."
"Wait," Jim interrupted before Blair could get off on another tangent. "Two years ago, I told you I was bisexual, and you didn't think to fucking mention that you've had a thing for me since day one?" Jim demanded. Okay, he was angry. He had fucking opened up, and Sandburg had just totally denied him any chance to know something he had every right to know.
"You told me you'd had an affair with a commanding officer."
"Exactly," Blair said in a smug tone of voice that Jim was just not understanding.
"Sandburg, make sense."
That made Blair sigh. "Gay men, and bisexual men who are in a relationship with another man are far more likely than the average person to have a strong preference for a particular physical type."
"So I'm not your type?" Jim asked, still trying to sort the Blair-logic.
"You are not this dense, Jim." Blair crossed his arms and glared as though Jim were saying something bizarre.
"Obviously, today I am."
"Fine. I'll just spell it out for you. I'm not your type, and I didn't want to lose our friendship by making you say that out loud so that it was uncomfortable between us."
"You're not my type?" Jim asked incredulously.
"That's what I said. Man, you are acting like a real dick about this. It's not like I knew you were getting addicted to my pheromones; of course, I should have figured something out considering that you lost your mind every time a pretty girl started panting after you."
"Their pheromones," Jim said softly, and that really did make him flinch. Being addicted to Blair's pheromones he could deal with, but his track record with women was bad enough that the probably needed to tell Simon about this so he could keep Jim off any cases where his judgment could be compromised… again.
Blair was nodding. "The more attractive someone finds you, the more their pheromones affect you. And normally, your guide would shield you from that, but…" Blair let his words trail off with a vague wave of his hand.
"Because we haven't had sex, I'm vulnerable," Jim said as the turned that thought over in his head. The practical solution seemed pretty obvious to him.
"It's not like we have sex and 'bam!' you aren't vulnerable." Blair rolled his eyes, and Jim's incipient lust vanished.
"Okay, what is it like?"
"When a Sentinel and guide have sex over a long period of time, the pheromone receptors gradually adapt to accept only the pheromones from the guide. A Sentinel who hasn't chosen a companion, an undedicated Sentinel, can work with anyone who finds him or her attractive, but it's like the most interested partner gets the Sentinel's attention."
"Wait, Lila liked me more than you did? Chief, considering how that came out, I'm offended." Jim backed up to the far wall and leaned against it as he tried to sort out his feelings. He needed Blair's pheromones, but Blair obviously wasn't all that attracted to him, but Blair was attracted, and a murderess bitch actually wanted him more than Blair. This wasn't a good place to start a relationship.
"Oh man, you're getting defensive now."
"I think I'm entitled. You're interested, but not as much as Lila or Veronica were."
"Think about it. When Veronica showed up, I was broke, I was borrowing money from you and stressed, and still getting over Alex's death and man, I felt so guilty about that. She was on campus to see me, and some wacko just shoots her, and I'm still not sure I'm buying the Section line about her being some master criminal. I was too screwed up to have the hots for you, so of course I wasn't doing my job. And I've been thinking about every case where your instincts got all turned around. Laura was right after I lost Maya. Lila was a week after Roy Williams died. I so totally was not doing my job."
"Your job?" Jim raised an eyebrow.
"My job. As the guide, I’m supposed to be your shield so you can't get hijacked, only because you aren't physically attracted to me, it's all messed up. I mean, we can totally keep working together, but as an undedicated Sentinel, you'll always have that vulnerability, although if I stop dating, I think I could probably…"
"Stop!" Jim said, one hand out as his head spun from the overload of information. "Blair, are you attracted to me?" Jim asked as he held up one finger. Blair opened his mouth, and Jim cautioned him, "One word—yes or no because I am out of patience for obfuscations here, Chief."
Blair narrowed his eyes. "Fine. Yes."
Jim held up a second finger. "I'm attracted to you. I don't know where you get this shit about a man only wanting a certain physical type, but I'm far more interested in what a person does than what he looks like."
"Wait, you mean—"
"Three!" Jim interrupted as he held up a third finger. "I trust you, and I try not to start a sexual relationship without trust no matter how attractive I find the man or woman." He held up a fourth finger. "Do you trust me?"
"That was a yes. Blair, we trust each other, we like each other, we're sexually attracted to each other, we live together. I have to ask why we haven't been having sex."
"This could totally complicate things," Blair said cautiously.
"Yep," Jim agreed as he flung an arm around Blair's shoulder and pointed his guide back toward the break room. "Now we have a team that needs some team building, so we're going to talk and share stories and find out if this labyrinth has a pool table in it. Right after I have lunch."
"Just like that?" Blair asked, and Jim assumed he meant the having sex part and not the team playing pool together.
Jim stopped, his hand still resting on Blair's shoulder. "Do you want to give this a try?"
Blair chewed on his lip and frowned for a second. "I want this more than anything, but if you don't want me, if you're just doing this because you'd rather have my hormones screwing you up than be vulnerable…" Blair took a deep breath, "just please don't do that to me, man."
"I'm not, Blair," Jim promised, and he used his thumb to trace the edge of Blair's jaw. "I am attracted to you. I never thought you were interested because dated so many women. If I thought I'd stood a chance with you, I would have made a fool out of myself a long time ago."
"We suck," Blair said softly.
"I do," Jim agreed with a smile. "I'm hoping it goes both ways." Before Blair could answer, Jim had swiped the security card through the reader, and the door to the lounge slid open. Jim's lasagna and fries sat waiting, and Makepeace was eating with single-minded dedication as Jurgen and Tobias chatted about some study on stress and performance.
"Oh man, I read that piece," Blair said as he sat at the table, reached over, and stole some of Jim's fries. Jim smiled as he sat at the table. There just might be hope for them.
"Oh man, just keep everything dialed down," Blair barely breathed as they walked the neat square with the planters at regular intervals. For a city that had been in a war zone not so long ago, Maribor was clean and neat and very European, which shouldn't be surprising since they were in Europe.
"I'm fine Sandburg," Jim complained. Tobias and Jurgen stood at a little red building making moon eyes at each other and buying touristy t-shirts while Makepeace sat with a frown and book on the bench that went around the monument dominating the center of the square. He could easily pass for a local, and with the unhappy expression, a local that no one was going to approach unless they had a death wish. Blair sighed. He could play nice all he wanted, Makepeace was still going to hate him.
"If by fine, you mean you're all tense and your instincts are making you into a grouchy asshole, I'm right there with you, man," Blair agreed. Jim turned and graced Blair with a glare, but Blair just stared right back at him. "Speaking the truth here, and you so know it."
"There's something here."
"Yep, which is why we're here," Blair pointed out. "But if your Sentinel instincts go all wonky, we really need to rethink the plan."
"I'm not wonky." Jim growled that bit.
"Riiight. Maybe we should go back to the hotel and…" Blair waved a hand vaguely. Jim's glare grew more intense. "It might help," Blair added defensively.
"I'm not having sex with you to make… things go smoother."
"So, we can have sex and you say that you want to have sex, but we can't have sex until we prove some point by putting your instincts in the line of fire and watching you go wonky?" Blair's words were little more than a whisper that he muttered close to Jim's arm as he pretended to take a picture of the houses all connected in a row, their ornate windows all perfectly aligned and freshly washed. Cascade never looked this clean, but maybe that was because of all the rain.
Jim didn't answer, but the withering expression Jim focused on him was enough to make a lesser man run for cover. Not even Makepeace looked at Blair with quite that much venom. "I am not wonky." Each word was said slowly and carefully as though Jim was afraid of what might slip out if he didn't control his mouth.
"Uh huh. God, some days I wonder if your testosterone levels aren't in the poisonous range," Blair snorted before he started heading toward the end of the square that led to the university buildings. So far, they only had Jim's instincts and a vague report that the aliens might be accessing computer networks through the University of Maribor.
Immediately, Jim reached out and grabbed Blair's shoulder, yanking him back so fast that Blair gave a yelp that made several people turn and look. "Nearly dropped it. Cost $400," Blair babbled as he held up the camera for people to see. Jim's frown deepened. Oh yeah, whether Jim admitted it or not, these goa'uld were doing a number on his senses. Blair couldn't remember the last time Jim was this irrational. "Chill," Blair snapped, and Jim dropped his hand away from Blair's shoulder even if his fingers kept twitching.
Blair didn't even glance over as Tobias and Jurgen moved into position, holding hands and casually wandering in the same general direction as Jim and Blair. Looking up, Blair waited for Jim to make a decision about whether to continue or to head back to the hotel where Bruhn and Knudsen were waiting. With a heavy hand, Jim scrubbed his face for a second, looking exhausted as he cracked his neck.
"Come on, Chief, let's go check out this great conference you're so hot on attending," Jim finally sighed as they headed toward the university. The conference wasn't exactly Blair's normal cup of tea since it focused on work process management, but he had a whole story prepped if anyone asked. His own work in victimization focused on the inability of victims to interact with the mainstream, and teaching victims to work with business or teaching business to create a culture that would take advantage of the potential employee pool available in the victims of abuse and crime… it was a study that Blair was increasingly determined to actually follow up on as soon as Section was through with them.
Blair let Jim take his arm, fully aware of the fact that anyone who saw them would assume they were a couple. And if Blair could just get them a little privacy from the rest of the team, they might actually be a couple, which was more than a little weird. Four years of frustration, and Blair had learned to live with it. He'd taken the objective data—Jim's affair with his commanding officer in the Rangers, his attraction to Carolyn and Lily and a half dozen other women—he'd taken that and determined that Jim was sexually attracted to the strong, aggressive, and occasionally murderous type. Actually, of all Jim's lovers, Caro was the only one who Blair was reasonably sure hadn't ever killed anyone. And even then, he couldn't be sure because that woman had a temper that could strip the paint off a barn.
And now Jim claimed to be attracted to Blair, but refused to do anything until this mission was over. Blair wasn't sure if he was frustrated or afraid. What he wanted was so close. Jim was holding out a relationship like a carrot on a string, and Blair was fairly sure he'd do anything to get that carrot. But the nagging thought that Jim was once again acting out of his own fear-based responses haunted Blair. What if Jim was only choosing to have sex with him to avoid having to work with other guides if he was called to service again? What if Jim wanted control over the senses and didn't actually want Blair?
Blair glanced over at Jim's deep frown and shoved his own thoughts aside as he focused on his Sentinel. "Oh man, not here," he whispered just as Jim's face started to get that slack expression. Shit. Jim hadn't zoned in forever. The road had narrowed, and the small cars Europeans favored clacked over the speed bump right in front of the bench where Jim unexpectedly sat.
"Something's close," Jim whispered as he put his head down in his hands. Blair rubbed his back in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. When Jim reached out and grabbed his knee, holding it desperately, Blair couldn't avoid feeling a flare of need. Even if Jim just needed to have sex in order to control his own life, Blair knew he was way in over his head emotionally. He wanted Jim.
"Just stick close," Jim said as he stood and took a deep breath. When Blair stood next to him, Jim slung and arm around his shoulder and pulled Blair to his side. A passing couple frowned at them, and Blair offered up his most dazzling smile as he slipped his own arm around Jim's waist. Then Jim was moving again, staying near the brick buildings that radiated the heat from the sun back into the street. Jim stopped and studied a store window with brightly colored advertising, but Blair could read the tilt of his head.
Blair pressed three fingers against his thigh in a modified covert signal, and immediately shifted to take a picture of Jim in front of the metal grillwork of a decorative fence. Jim smiled, playing his part, but Blair could see the lines at the corners of his eyes deepen and Jim clung to the metal scrolling on the gate as though he would fall without the support. Jim flicked his ring finger, making the gesture for 'seven' so quickly that Blair almost missed it, but he smiled and turned as though trying to get out of the light and review the picture he had just taken. At seven o'clock two men walked, eyes straight forward as though seeing nothing except what was right in front of them.
"Oh man. Fuck. I forgot my credentials back at the hotel. They won't let me in the conference without that badge," Blair complained.
"Damn it, Chief. Do I have to pin your shit to your shirt for you to keep track of it?" Jim demanded in a voice just a little louder than it absolutely needed to be.
"Fuck you," Blair offered with an appropriate hand gesture before he turned and headed back toward Hotel Orel.
"Temper, temper," Jim said, his voice teasing even if Blair could hear the strain in it. Jim's hand landed on his shoulder, and Blair stopped for a half-step so that he would again be pressed to Jim's side. The two men Jim had identified walked on without sparing a glance in either direction.
Blair's first observation was that they either weren't very observant or they were damn arrogant because they didn't try to watch their environment at all. Even if Blair hadn't bothered to check on Jurgen's location, he could bet that the profiler was coming to the same conclusion. One man was tall, light brown hair and a handsome face made him stand out from the crowd. The other man was not as tall, but his black hair and well developed body certainly caught the look of more than one girl as they walked toward the town square.
Jim and Blair followed them to Svetozarevska, but when Jim and Blair turned north toward Castle Square and their hotel, the two aliens continued on the main road, walking resolutely side by side until they were out of sight. Silently, Jim walked them back to their hotel. He bypassed the room they had rented with its cute little balcony and cheerful red flowers and instead went through a barrier of plastic sheeting into a sector that local officials had determined unsafe due to a spill of pesticides being used to fumigate the hotel. For the next three weeks, not even hotel officials were allowed past the official government warning signs.
"Confirmed contact?" Knudsen asked as he sat at a laptop hooked to any number of devices Blair didn't recognize. Jim nodded and nearly collapsed into a chair. They sat in a silence broken only by Knudsen typing on his computer for nearly fifteen minutes before Tobias and Jurgen joined them.
"Robert's in position," Jurgen immediately offered. Makepeace would stay in position outside while the rest of them debriefed. "Were they goa'uld?"
Tobias didn't say anything, but she moved to the bed and Knudsen immediately surrendered his spot as she started checking the computer's security.
"They were either goa'uld or something else that I instinctively wanted to hunt down and rip apart with my bare hands," Jim nodded slowly. They aren't… they aren't natural. It's like I could hear their bodies not in tune with themselves." Jim spoke slowly struggling with the words, and Blair pulled the closest chair over to his side and sat, his hands on Jim's knee.
"What did you hear?"
Jim was shaking his head. "I don't know."
"Come on; let's work through one sense at a time."
"Not now, Sandburg," Jim snapped out and Blair sat back in surprise. "You and Jurgen have to report. This is about your observations right now, so do your job." Jim stood up and moved to the window. It had been heavily covered with black plastic, but Blair suspected that Jim could still see out. Jurgen curiously watched first Jim and then Blair, and Blair felt himself blush under the observation.
"What are your observations and conclusions?" Jim asked as he stared at the covered window. Blair glanced toward Jurgen who tilted his head in a way that invited Blair to go first.
"Both have hosts that attract attention by being physically attractive. I would suspect--given the other two goa'ulds I've seen--that it may be a cultural trait; however, they're basing attractiveness on a human standard, which is weird considering that in their natural state they're snakes."
"A desire to be seen as attractive, perhaps biologically determined," Jurgen nodded.
"But a need to be attractive to the potential hosts? Man, that doesn't make sense. Attraction is about reproduction and survival. If you can just take a host, why do you need to be in a host that another potential host sees as attractive?"
"Power?" Jurgen mused.
"Maybe," Blair agreed, most of his attention still on Jim. "Definitely not something I'd make a conclusion about at this point."
"Agreed." Jurgen sat on the edge of the bed, his hip pressed to Tobias' leg, and she spared him a smile before going back to typing. Blair had always seen military units and sexuality as mutually exclusive, but if he and Jim weren't doing it, Blair was pretty sure they were the only ones who weren't.
Tobias and Jurgen were sending out major signals, and while Miko Bruhn and Hannu Knudsen were more subtle, Blair was a good sixty percent sure they were sleeping together. It would explain why Bruhn had given up his career and his life to try and protect Knudsen against the bogus rape charges. Of course Makepeace wasn't sharing time with anyone except his own hand, but then again, that might just be the man's personality. So far, Blair had the impression that he was a man who didn't let his guard down long enough to let anyone inside. Even Tobias, who had been in the same organization before coming to Section, got little more than disinterested looks from him. That was still better than the hate Blair got, but it wasn't exactly a warm and friendly team-feeling he had for anyone.
Blair must have been silent for too long because Jim turned around to glare, his arms crossed over his chest as he looked from Jurgen to Blair.
"They're hierarchical," Blair said.
"We knew that already," Tobias pointed out even as she typed Blair's comments into the computer for Section.
"No, we knew they had System Lords who acted as dictators over large groups of goa'uld, jaffa, and humans," Jurgen said as he nodded in agreement with Blair.
"But these are two minor goa'uld, and they're hierarchical with each other, refusing to allow one another to get even one step ahead. And the fact that they are so carefully trying to maintain an equal standing when equality is clearly not their norm…" Blair grimaced as he tried to figure that one out.
"Someone or something is forcing them into unnatural patterns of behavior," Jurgen nodded. "Clare got a number of clear shots from the hidden camera, so we should have an identity on the hosts and information on their locations soon enough, and then we should be able to make more observations."
"Anything else?" Jim asked when the room went silent for several minutes.
"Oh man, off watching two people walk down a street? I'm impressed that we came up with that much." Blair crossed his own arms in imitation of Jim and dared the man to press the issue. If Jim wanted to act like an asshole, Blair could out-asshole him any day of the week.
"We should head back to the university." Jim nodded to himself without bothering to ask for anyone's input. "Knudsen, you take rear. The rest of you are off until Dr. Sandburg goes to a few sessions and establishes our cover."
"I'll go get my papers," Blair said as he got up.
"You mean you really did leave them behind?" Jim demanded. Blair offered his Sentinel a sweet smile that did little to hide his frustration before heading out of the room. Outside, he nearly walked into Makepeace.
"Always watch that your retreat is clear or you're going to get someone killed, Sandburg," Makepeace growled.
"I was trusting you to do the watching thing, actually," Blair offered as he gave the man a smile and slid past him as he headed for the room he and Jim were sharing. Yeah, Makepeace had been given the signal that he could come in the second Jim had issued the order, but Blair just had the creepy feeling that the man had stood in the hall and waited for a chance to harass Blair. He was a grade-A asshole. Blair so would have nagged Jim about sending him back except that Nikita wanted him on the mission and Jim said he trusted Makepeace's instincts in battle if not his attitude. Personally, Blair didn't trust him far enough to let the man borrow his favorite pencil.
Jim caught up to him in their room. "You get your papers, Chief?" he asked, all the surliness of just minutes ago gone as he stood leaning against the door with a relaxed smile.
Blair shoved his conference registration in his pocket and turned on Jim. "Yeah," he said, his voice dark. Jim frowned at him for a second.
"Chief, you okay?"
"Other than trying to figure out who pissed on your cornflakes this morning, I'm great," Blair said as he shoved past Jim and headed for the stairs.
"Chief!" Jim called out, but Blair was out the door and hurrying across the cobbled brick of Castle Square. "Sandburg!" Jim caught Blair's arm just as he reached the yellow-tented booths selling local food. "Blair, hold on." Jim yanked Blair to a halt, and Blair glared at him. "Talk to me, Chief."
"Why? You're so busy snapping at me that I didn't think we were talking anymore."
Jim stepped back looking confused, and Blair immediately felt the guilt seep in through the cracks like floodwater into his soul. It made him feel dirty. "Jim," he said softly.
"No, I know. I'm trying," Jim said as he started walking toward the university. Blair closed his eyes and fought with his own overgrown emotions before he hurried to fall into step next to Jim.
"I'm sorry. I'm just frustrated," Blair apologized.
"Frustrated as in…"
"Frustrated as in you don't seem to be talking to me like an equal partner anymore," Blair quickly clarified. Yeah, he was frustrated in other ways too, but Jim needed time to work through those thoughts, and Blair wasn't pushing, not when he wasn't sure whether Jim wanted him or a method of controlling his senses and his addiction to hormones. And it was really fucking with Blair's self-image to realize that if he was nothing more than a way for Jim to gain that control, he would still go ahead with the relationship.
"This is just a difficult spot for me to be in. They need to see me as a commander," Jim said, his voice a whisper that didn't carry past them, but Blair understood that Jim was still breaking protocol every time he talked about the mission in the open like this. Blair reached out and let his hand rest on Jim's back, and Jim's arm immediately reciprocated.
"I just need to know that you respect my opinions."
"Everyone respects your opinions, Dr. Sandburg. If you told the commissioner that they needed to paint the whole precinct pink to better communicate with victims of crime, he'd have the painters there in a week."
"Oh man, now that would be an interesting experiment in control," Blair said as he thought about Simon's face as the painters came in with their pink paint.
"Don't think about it, Darwin. I will rat you out to Simon and the commissioner."
"Jim, I don't actually care what they think about me." Blair cringed a little as he recognized his own lie. "Okay, I care. I especially care about Simon's opinion. However, their opinions don't matter like yours do, so when you shut me down without even listening like back in the room, I just start worrying about our relationship."
"Our relationship," Jim echoed.
"Our relationship, our friendship, four years of partnering, our relationship," Blair said, pointedly leaving out the parts of the relationship they weren't as sure about yet. They walked under the blue sky, and Blair let himself focus on some pink and orange graffiti sprayed on a tan brick building as Jim's arm guided him around a corner. On the smaller streets, pedestrians and cars shared the road, and Jim switched sides to keep himself between Blair and the slowly moving traffic. The flowerbeds on the university grounds came into view before Jim took a deep breath.
"So, what are you going to do while I sit in and listen to a lecture on organization effectiveness with entry-level employees and establishing corporate culture?" Blair asked casually.
Jim had already discussed with the conference organizers that Blair had received some death threats and Jim needed to stay fairly close, but right now Blair needed distance. He needed distance to try and tease out which of these negative vibes were coming from Jim the man, which were coming from the Sentinel, and which were coming from Blair's own insecurities about this change in their relationship which hadn't actually changed yet. They were sharing a bed, and Blair might as well be sharing a bunk with one of the monks from St. Sebastian's. So, he officially invited Jim to do something else while he was doing the academic thing.
"Consider it a test. You get to track me in the middle of two hundred people all as boring as I am. Besides, there are only a few sessions in English, so I won't be in there for all that long, but I really do want to talk to Dr. Gorshe and hear his lecture. And trust me, you would be bored stupid."
"And I won't be stuck sitting out here?" Jim demanded.
Blair smiled and looked around at the university square. "Sunlight, flowers, a fountain, and all the pretty college girls you can look at. You'll be fine," Blair said as he patted Jim on the arm and headed for the building.
"Chief, be careful," Jim offered his final words of advice as he settled on one of the benches surrounding the sunken fountain.
"No problem," Blair offered brightly as he walked backwards for a few steps so he could wave to his worrywart Sentinel. For a couple of hours, he was going to let his academic curiosity take over while he let his subconscious worry about the increasing tensions between him and Jim. He might have said they were unresolved sexual conflicts, but Blair was perfectly willing to solve any sexual conflicts, and Jim claimed he was too, even if he wanted to wait.
Blair forced his mind away from that topic as he showed the girl in the conference area his paperwork and claimed his badge. His had a little American flag in the corner, and Blair could see that a number of other conference-goers had the same little symbol. It shouldn't have surprised him given that the University of Maribor partnered internationally with a number of universities.
The lecture he wanted was in the main hall, and he wandered in, nodding vaguely at people whose names didn't even sound vaguely familiar. At most conferences, he recognized someone whose published work he'd read or people recognized his name. Here he just wandered the room, picking up a stale donut from the back as he tried to figure out where to sit. The chairs on the edges of the sections had already been claimed with notebooks and briefcases claiming the territory as the various academics wandered the room. Blair spotted a potential friendly face perched on a chair on the far right aisle, and headed that way. He smiled as he slipped past the man whose glasses were sliding down his nose in order to get to one of the free chairs.
"Hey," Blair said as he dropped into a seat near the other man. At least this one didn't look ancient or grumpy, and most of the room was filled with ancient and/or grumpy. Up close, he could see the small lines that suggested that the man wasn't as young as he looked at first, but at least he was close enough in age to Blair for them to talk… hopefully.
"Hi," the other man offered as he shuffled his papers and frowned. A paper slithered to the floor and Blair bent over to retrieve it before offering it to his neighbor. "Thanks."
"No problem. Oh man, I'm terrible with paper which is why I'm trying to switch over to the electronic age. Less shit to drop," Blair confided as he pulled out a handheld recorder.
"I always found those things recorded more of the audience coughing than the speaker." The other man shoved his glasses back up and sat back in his chair. "They're great in the field though."
"I do pretty good with this model," Blair shrugged. "Blair Sandburg from Washington State."
"Daniel Jackson from Colorado," the other man offered.
"No offense, man, but you look a little out of place," Blair looked around the room. Daniel laughed.
"I hate to point it out, but so do you."
"Yeah, I kinda do. I work with victims of crime, specializing in the cultural aspects that reinforce victimization. I'm looking at how corporate culture can overcome those traits."
"Anthropology?" Daniel asked, both eyebrows going up.
"Yeah. Since I was sixteen and someone introduced me to Sir Richard Burton's work. Although when I was sixteen, I was way more interested in his translation of the Kama Sutra than his anthropological observations, you know?"
"On the Means of Attracting Others to One's Self," Daniel quoted.
"Oh man, yeah. At sixteen that pretty much defined my life's goal. So, what's your specialty?"
"Whoa, you really are way out of your field," Blair said with a strange look at the man. Daniel shook his head.
"I specialize in Egypt. I'm looking at the trade and business models of Egyptian society, and I thought this would be a good way to pick up some of the academic background on modern business models so I could apply them."
"Man, no offense, but wasn't the Egyptian business model pretty much slavery?"
Daniel blinked. "Seasonal conscripts, maybe. But have you considered the impracticality of having an entire culture based on slavery? Even the American south was unable to sustain itself without constant shipments of new slaves. My thesis is that the later kingdoms had much more in common with current business practices."
Blair let himself focus on the conversation until the lecture started. Daniel took notes while Blair kept his recorder aimed to the front and all seemed to go well until Blair glanced over at the clock to check the time. Against the wall under the clock leaned a man with graying hair and dark eyes. Shit, shit, and double shit. That was Colonel Jack O'Neill, and just why was it that Blair was always the one who seemed to end up in the middle of all the falling shit?
Blair tapped the little communicator built into his watch with weird memories of old spy shows running through his head, although right now he was feeling much more Max Smart than James Bond. Of all the gin joints, in all of Eastern Europe, why did Jack O'Neill have to drop in on this one? Oh shit. There was probably a goa'uld in here somewhere.
"Blair, are you okay?" Daniel asked, his hand resting on Blair's arm. Blair's brain spluttered for a fraction of a second before the lies started flowing again.
"Fine. Absolutely fine. Well, not really fine, more like I’m feeling a little sick. Ethnic chicken liver dish. My partner warned me to not try it." Blair slipped his recorder in his pocket and got up. A few seconds and Jim would come through that door… and now that Blair had already sent the signal… NOW it occurred to him that Jim was going to come in here and there was probably a goa'uld in here, and Jim's senses were being wonky. Oh yeah, this was a recipe for disaster. "I just need to use—" Blair gestured vaguely toward the doors as he slid past Daniel. Just be cool. Just stay cool and pretend to not see the special ops colonel watching. Just stay cool and don't search the room for the alien snake burrowed in someone's brain. Shit.
"You're really pale. Maybe I should—" Daniel started to get up.
"Hey, no. No. Take some notes for me, okay?" Blair pushed Daniel back down with a hand on the other man's shoulder and then turned and practically dashed for the back doors to the conference room. The doors hadn't even drifted shut before Jim was there, his hands on Blair's shoulder.
"Hey, are you sure you're okay?" Daniel's voice came through the doors a half second before Daniel himself appeared. He stopped when he saw Jim, his one hand rubbing his opposite arm nervously. "Blair?"
"Daniel. Yeah, I'm fine. This is my partner… my work partner, Jim. Jim, Daniel's an archeologist studying Egypt," Blair provided quick introductions even as he backed toward the bathroom. "I just need to, you know, go." Blair gave Jim a desperate look before he turned and dashed for the bathroom. Okay, just get everyone away from the conference room with the colonel and the alien. That was goal one. Goal two was to get the hell out of here and tell Jim that they had bigger problems than the NID. They could shoot NID people… Blair wouldn't be happy and he was definitely voting for shooting them in the leg, but he could understand the necessity to do it if they had to. But if O'Neill was around, that meant that they had another competing interest for the goa'uld, and this time, they couldn't shoot him. No way. No, there would be no shooting of people who had saved the planet.
"Chief?" Jim called and fast footsteps followed as Blair threw himself into a stall and locked the flimsy little latch.
"He said it was something he ate." Daniel's voice echoed off the tile as he followed too.
"Oh man, are we women flocking to the bathroom like this? Where's the privacy?" Blair complained Sentinel-soft. "Jack O'Neill is in the conference room watching the crowd, so I'm thinking alien," he whispered as he braced his hands on either side of the stall and stared at the slightly bluish water in the white tank.
"He really got pale in there. Maybe we should call someone," Daniel continued since he couldn't hear Blair.
"He's fine," Jim was saying, "he just has a weak stomach. I told him to avoid the chicken and stick with American food."
Blair faked a few vomiting sounds for effect.
"Danny?" a new voice asked.
"In here," Daniel answered, and Blair made a couple more vomiting sounds as someone turned on the water. Blair was guessing Jim since he was the one who had an interest in hiding the fact that Blair wasn't actually vomiting.
"For cryin' out loud, Daniel. You nag me about how you have to come to this and then you hide in the bathroom?"
"I'm doing it just to annoy you," Daniel said in a sarcastic tone, and then he sighed. "Jack, this is Jim. His partner got sick while we were sitting next to each other."
The bathroom was silent for a second, and Blair made another retching noise.
"Uh huh," the stranger commented. "Jack O'Neill," he introduced himself. Blair didn't have to fake the noise that came out of him that time. Oh fuck. Jim was going to kill him. He had an entire conference full of nice boring academics, and he'd sat next to someone who knew Jack O'Neill. Blair gave a pained groan when he realized what was even worse. He'd sat down next to someone who O'Neill cared enough about to follow into the bathroom. Shit.
"Jim Ellison," his partner offered without even the slightest trace of horror, which was more than Blair could have done right now. Blair could feel his heart thump heavily. "Chief, are you alright? You need anything?" Jim called through the door.
"A new stomach." Blair hesitated. "A time machine so I could go back to this morning and do this whole fucking day over." He didn't even have to pretend to sound sick.
Jack O'Neill laughed at that. "Had those days myself. Come on, Danny, let's leave him to turn his guts inside out in some privacy."
"Nice… uh, meeting you," Daniel offered through the stall door.
"Same here," Blair offered back as he waited for the echoes of their footsteps to disappear before he opened the stall door and peeked out. "Jim, I swear—"
"Shhh." Jim held up his hand, his head cocked to the side, and Blair hurried to Jim's side, resting a hand on his arm as Jim listened.
"O'Neill recognized me. He's calling Major Carter, having her check to see which agency I'm working with."
"Oh fuck." Blair's already queasy stomach did another twist and he glanced over at the toilet wondering if he was going to have to use it after all.
"He's guessing NID. Okay, Chief, we're going to have to move quick. I think he's staying far enough back to make tailing us difficult."
"Tailing us? He wants to tail us?" Blair took several deep breaths and tried to keep his mind from spinning out of control as Jim just about pushed him out of the bathroom with a hand on Blair's back. Okay, he could do this. Blair had been on plenty of undercover assignments with Jim, and this was just one more, that's what he told himself.
Jim chuckled. As they were walking out into the sunlight, he actually chuckled as he hurried Blair down the stairs of the university building. Blair looked up in confusion.
"He's giving Dr. Jackson a hard time for sitting down next to the only NID agent in the room."
"Technically, I sat down next to him," Blair pointed out as they walked quickly through the square and toward a street they hadn't been down before. Pedestrians chatted and shoppers sat on benches with bags gathered at their feet, but Blair didn't see any sign of Daniel or Colonel O'Neill or aliens with ray guns. His life had officially taken a turn for the strange when he had a reasonable fear of aliens with ray guns.
"Why am I not surprised you'd sit next to him?" Jim asked with a resigned voice.
"It's not like I knew him."
"I know, Chief. I had the files on SG-1, but they weren't supposed to be here and you had your hands full with the Sentinel files, so I didn't add them to your pile. This is my fault as much as anyone's."
"Are they following?" Blair whispered as they hurried past a building with old fashioned gargoyles peering down at them.
"Yeah. Hard to miss them with their fighting," Jim confided. His voice got distant, and it took Blair a second to realize Jim was repeating someone else's words. "'Yes, Jack, I intentionally found the only NID agent and sat next to him just to give you a reason to bitch.' Dr. Jackson sounds cranky," Jim finished as he guided them around a corner and broke into a trot. "Knudsen, keep your distance," Jim muttered into the lapel of his jacket.
They turned another corner, and Jim yanked Blair through an arch and down a half dozen steps into a sunken entryway shaded by a cascade of leaves from an overgrown flowering vine that had buried the iron fence that shaded the secluded spot. Blair almost stopped breathing as Jim pushed him against the cold brick, pressing his own body to Blair's and trapping him there. Jim's hands rested against the wall on either side of Blair's head, and he tipped his head to one side. For a moment, Blair stood awkwardly, not sure what to do with his own hands. Finally he settled them on Jim's hips, giving his Sentinel the contact he needed to use his senses.
He'd read the Section reports. He knew that pheromones affected Jim's ability to use his senses. He just really wished that Jim didn't know that, because now, as Jim leaned in with his lips so close to Blair's neck that his curls fluttered with every breath Jim took, Blair couldn't quiet the little part of his brain that whispered that Jim just wanted him for his hormones. The thought made him want to laugh, and for a second, Blair toyed with the idea of pushing Jim off, of telling him that this imitation of intimacy was worse than Jim's weird refusal to be intimate at all. He even raised his hands to Jim's shoulders so he could push him away. Instead, his hand found Jim's neck and rested there, the warmth of Jim's skin under his palm infinitely more sensual than any foreplay he'd ever engaged in. He groaned as his body reacted.
Jim's head tilted and he got that same detached tone to his voice as he whispered into the microphone in his lapel, repeating what only he could hear.
"Maybe he's just here with Dr. Sandburg."
"Yeah, sure, you betcha. It's just coincidence that a covert ops soldier shows up in Maribor at the same time as the goa'uld."
"It could be—"
"Maribor, Danny. Maribor. We aren't in the middle of New York here. People don't just randomly come to Maribor."
Jim had been whispering Daniel and Jack's words, every syllable brushing warm air over Blair's neck, but now he could hear the two men on the street for himself as they reached the sidewalk right next to the secluded spot where Jim and Blair waited.
"You'd think I'd learn to spot them after a while," Daniel was saying, and Blair recognized that self-deprecating tone even when it was whispered so softly that he could barely hear it.
"Not your job, Danny. I'm supposed—" O'Neill's voice faded. They were speaking so softly, that even holding his breath and standing inches away, Blair could only catch those few words. Now he let his breath out loudly.
Jim glanced down at him. "Give them a second, and we'll head back to the hotel."
"But what about the mission? How can we—" Jim held up his hand and let a finger rest on Blair's lips. Blair opened his mouth to protest and Jim leaned in so close that for a second he thought Jim would kiss him. This was so similar to his dreams that Blair's brain fogged for a second until he processed the soft words Jim was breathing even quieter than a whisper.
"They're coming back. Let them pass, and we can head back to the hotel to get further instruction from Section."
Not exactly sweet talk. Blair nodded and tried to think the unsexiest thoughts he could to try and regain some control over his brain, which had started to leak fantasies. Chancellor Edwards. Chancellor Edwards in a bathing suit. That hooker with the big open sores on her lips they had questioned during the McGraw case. Lash and his dentist chair. Okay, that last one did it for him. Blair could feel the rising lust evaporate as his balls actually drew up in disgust. Jim frowned and glanced down at him, but Blair kept his eyes firmly on the blue door behind Jim.
Eventually Jim nodded. "Okay, it's safe." Taking Blair by the elbow, Jim hurried him up the stairs and down the street away from the hotel.
"We'll double back," Jim said shortly.
"Oh man, why did you give him your real name?" Blair asked in despair as he considered just how complicated this mission had just become.
Jim frowned, and the muscle in his jaw bulged a little before he took a deep breath. "O'Neill recognized me the minute he walked into the bathroom. I thought giving him a fake name would probably make him even more suspicious," Jim pointed out as they turned a corner and Blair caught the dark blue of the Drava river as they headed back east toward the hotel.
Jim casually flung an arm over Blair's shoulder and leaned in as if they were lovers exchanging private words as they strolled down the street. Blair wasn't fooled because he could see the tightness in Jim's face that suggested the Sentinel was heavily relying on his senses. "If that had been a sociological conference on crime, how many of the people would you have known?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged his shoulders. "Probably several."
"How many would you have recognized from journals articles or the backs of their books?"
Blair frowned for a second before answering. Sadly, he was way more familiar with the people studying criminology than tribal anthropology right now. "Probably quite a few."
"Exactly, Chief. Covert ops is the same. It's a small community, and he's been a colonel a long time. Chances are that my file has gone across his desk several times. Even if I never made the cut for one of his teams, I'm not surprised he recognized me."
Blair nodded. "And then you were on the cover of News, not to mention that anyone who has been through Cascade would have seen you on the news."
"I'm not exactly low-profile," Jim agreed wryly.
"Which is why people other than Section haven't picked you up," Blair guessed. Jim's arm tightened around him and he glanced down at Blair without breaking his stride.
"Probably part of it," he admitted. "If I'm around other players, someone is going to know me. News wouldn't have gotten clearance to put that picture of me on the magazine if I hadn't already resigned my commission."
Blair leaned into Jim for a second, watching the waters of the Drava through a break in the houses. "And now that we're out in the field and they know you?" he asked. He had no idea how this would change the mission. Maybe Section would just want the aliens shot and them out of here. At least at this point Blair was fairly sure that the aliens weren't the equivalent of Ira and Edna Wiezman from Hoboken. The careful way they had maintained status with each other made Blair uneasy deep in his soul, and Jim's reaction confirmed it. As far as Blair was concerned, Sentinel instincts existed to protect the tribe, so if these things set off Jim's alarms, it's because they were a danger to the tribe in some way.
"We'll talk about it back at the hotel." Jim sounded distracted, and the tightness in his face became a tightness in his whole body as he just stopped and stood still in the middle of the sidewalk.
The head tilted a little, but then Jim seemed to lose his balance, slowly swaying back until Blair grabbed him by his jacket and yanked him forward. "Jim, man, not now. Follow my voice back. Come on, don't do this in public, you'll hate yourself when you wake up."
Blair now had to practically catch Jim as he overbalanced and started falling forward. "Jim. Follow my voice. You have to turn hearing down," Blair said, guessing at the sense that Jim had taken too far. He put his palm against Jim's cheek and let his thumb rest against Jim's lower lip hoping that smell and touch would help balance the out of control hearing. "Don't do this, man. Not now. Not here." Blair was starting to feel a little desperate and then Jim blinked and shook his head as he brought his hand up to rest it on Blair's shoulder.
"What was it?" Blair asked. "Goa'uld?" He whispered the word, but Jim only shook his head.
Jim's hand tightened on Blair's shoulder for a second, and Jim looked like he might say something, but then he shook his head again and started down the street, his arm once more over Blair's shoulder.
"Beautiful afternoon," he commented casually. "We'll have to stop and get something bland for your stomach. No more trying out exotic foods for you, my little guppy. I did not fly half way around the world to watch you heave your guts out in a toilet. You can do that at home."
"Not really how I planned to spend the day," Blair answered as he slipped an arm around Jim's waist and tried to look casually sick.
"Feel better now?"
"I don't feel worse," he shrugged, but he wasn't telling the truth. Jim's sudden act was making cold run up his spine. "Actually, now that I emptied my stomach, I am feeling better, but maybe we can stop somewhere and pick up some 7-up or something," Blair suggested. His guts really were starting to ache from all the tension. Part of him wanted to start searching the area for whatever danger had put Jim on high alert, but for all he knew, Jim was hearing someone a mile away and just being overly careful. And with goa'uld in the area, who knew how accurate his senses even were. The aliens obviously affected Sentinels because the report from the one sent to observe Seth showed a total lack of control and physiological symptoms of shock and stress. Even Jim was crankier than usual just being on the same street with the two aliens.
Just to distract himself from the possibility that armed aliens were right behind them, Blair started creating a mental list of reasons why Sentinels would react to the aliens. He had a list full of everything from genetic Sentinel memory to alien body chemistry by the time they reached the hotel. He couldn't test a single theory, but he sure had theories.
"Get Section on the line," Jim ordered as he swept into the room where Clare was sitting crosslegged and tapping away at the computer in the middle of the huge bed.
"Sir?" she asked.
"Get Nikita on the line, soldier," Jim snapped, obviously not in a mood for having anyone question his orders. The sudden snap from the forced casualness on the street to this military sharpness caught Blair as off-guard as anyone, so he could only watch as Jim paced the room and glared at Clare as he waited for her to get the connection live.
Karl Jurgen slipped into the room and glanced questioningly at Blair, but he could only shrug his shoulders. He certainly had no idea what had driven Jim into military-mode. "Colonel," Karl said carefully, and Blair noticed that it was the first time Karl had ever used Jim's rank… the first time Karl had even revealed that he knew Jim's rank. "What's the situation?"
"Colonel O'Neill, Dr. Jackson, and Major Carter are all confirmed. Teal'c is no doubt somewhere close. And I'm not sure, but I think I caught something following us, possibly NID." Jim stopped at the covered window and stared at it.
"Oh." Karl didn't say any more, but Clare had turned a lovely shade of white.
"Colonel?" she said softly as she turned the laptop toward him and abandoned the bed, "I have Nikita on the line."
Jim went and sat near the computer, his fingers hovering above the keyboard for a second. "Tobias, Jurgen, walk north perimeter. Knudsen," he said into his lapel, "get Bruhn and walk south. I want listening bugs planted at twenty yard intervals."
"Should I get Makepeace and Clark?" Clare asked. Jim's fingers twitched, violently curling before he stretched them out again. "No." He said the word sharply enough that Clare came to attention before Karl's hand rested on her shoulder.
"We'll gather the supplies," Karl said quietly and then he was pulling Clare out of the room.
"Oh man, what the hell is wrong with you?" Blair demanded the second they were alone. Jim looked at him blankly for a moment and then started typing.
Jim stared at the screen as though expecting something to jump out at him. His whole body was tense.
"Don't shut me out," Blair warned as he turned a wooden chair backwards and straddled it.
"Chief," Jim strangled the word as he hit the computer keys a little harder than really necessary.
"Jim, man, we're in this together. Look, I don't know if it's the goa'uld or this whole bonding situation, but you are like seriously freaking out here."
"I do not freak out," Jim said darkly.
"Of course not," Blair snorted as he watched Jim pound the computer even harder. "You just do a good impression of freaking out," he added. Jim just stopped, his hands curled into fists on either side of the computer.
"Do you trust me?" Jim asked, and he looked up with such fear and despair in his eyes, that Blair immediately moved to his side and leaned into him.
"Without reservation. I trust you more than Naomi, and I adore my mom, you know that."
"You trust me even if I don't seem to be acting rationally?" Jim asked.
That made Blair pause. He studied Jim's face, and the immediate and simplistic answer died on his lips. Remembering how the other Sentinel had reacted to Seth, Blair could admit to having just a little bit of fear curling at the bottom of his stomach. "Oh man, I believed when you saw a ghost, but there are limits. If you start doing something like sitting in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle I'm so not going to be the one handing you ammunition."
Jim snorted and scrubbed his face with one hand as he watched the computer screen. Blair tried to edge closer, but Jim gave him such a cold look that he stopped and held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Fine, geez, you seriously need an attitude check."
"Sandburg," Jim practically growled, and then he was typing again, this time a little slower. "Blair, give me your impression of the team."
"The whole team?" Blair retreated to the chair and straddled it again. Jim glanced up and then focused on the computer again without answering. "Okay, the whole team. Clare and Karl are so totally doing it… either that or they're about to."
"That's not your impression of them, that's just a statement of fact," Jim said with a wry expression.
"Fact? Really? Oh man, I knew it. Knudsen and Bruhn are too, aren't they?"
Jim rolled his eyes. "Either that or they're bathing in each other's sperm. Chief, I need your impression of the team members, each of them. Limit yourself to three words per person."
Blair looked at Jim for a moment. "James Joseph Ellison, occasional asshole," he started. Jim barely twitched. "Hannu Knudsen, loyal. Of course, maybe that's because of what Bruhn did for him, but I'm fairly sure he'd be happy to die if it meant saving Bruhn."
"That's more than three words, Chief," Jim said, but his voice was distracted as he typed on the computer.
"James Joseph Ellison, often an asshole," Blair amended himself softly, "and that's three words." Jim just grunted. "Fine. Korporal Miko Bruhn—unflappable, professional. Rebecca Clark—calm under fire. Robert Makepeace—hates me. Clare Tobias—smart and nervous. Karl Jurgen--." Blair stopped. No way could he describe Karl Jurgen in three words or less.
"Nevermind," Jim said with a frown.
"Oh man, you're freaking me out here," Blair said quietly. Jim stopped typing and rested his head on the heel of his hand, his elbow propped on his knee so that he looked like the perfect image of exhaustion. For a long minute, he sat there, unmoving, as the computer beeped for attention.
"Jim?" Blair got up, concerned that his Sentinel had slipped into another zone, but Jim took a deep breath and sat up before focusing on the computer screen.
"You know, I used to call all the weird shit in my life the Sandburg zone," Jim sighed.
Jim shook his head, refusing to answer, and that cold touch of fear skittered across Blair's nerves. "Go get the rest of the team. As soon as the listening bugs are planted, I want everyone in this room."
It was the first indicator that Jim had turned off his lapel mike that kept him connected to the rest of the team, and the cold fear sharpened. But all Blair could do was nod in agreement. This wasn't his world, and he didn't know how to keep them safe, so he had to rely on Jim. He just really wished he understood what was up with him.
Since Blair didn't have a mike that everyone automatically heard, he took the long route and just walked the area, casually giving the others a little circle with his finger to tell them to head to the rally point. Clare and Karl were holding hands and wandering the street, stopping to kiss and slip listening bugs into inconspicuous corners. Knudsen and Bruhn were playing friendly drunks having a good belching contest and generally convincing the people of Slovenia that Americans were as crass and disgusting as the worst stereotype they could imagine. Their American accents weren't doing much to improve the locals' opinions either. Bruhn sounded like an escapee from the Dukes of Hazard and Knudsen's voice was all nasal tones. And what was really sad was that they totally sounded American.
Upstairs, Clark and Makepeace had both retreated to their individual rooms, and Blair gave each door a quick knock before heading back to Jim's side. When he got to the room, Jim was still in front of the computer, but now his sidearm was out, resting on the bed next to him, and Blair was truly ready to freak.
"Come sit over here, Chief," Jim said quietly, gesturing toward the portion of the bed behind him.
"Tell me you're not about to do something stupid," Blair begged.
Jim's face hardened into something cold and unflinching. "Blair, trust me," he said calmly. Right, this just might be the rifle in the bell tower moment, but looking at Jim's face, Blair couldn't do anything but trust him. He walked to Jim's side and sat behind him on the bed. Rebecca Clark and Makepeace got there first, both looking confused. Clark's ponytail had lost several strands of hair on one side, and Blair was guessing that he had woken her. She'd had night watch, so she probably hadn't gotten enough sleep. Jim nodded to them and kept his eyes focused on the computer. Makepeace immediately went to parade rest and ignored them, but Rebecca shot a confused look in Blair's direction. Blair could only shrug helplessly.
Clare and Karl slipped in next. Clare looked a little more comfortable, but she still had a slightly nervous expression. Out on the street, Karl had taken care of that by kissing her until she had stood with her eyes half closed in a look of pure bliss, but Blair didn't figure that strategy would work well in this room, especially considering Jim's foul mood. Finally Knudsen and Bruhn appeared, closing the door behind them. Jim sat up straight and considered everyone in the room.
"We have a situation. SG-1 is on scene with orders to neutralize the goa'uld. NID agents are also confirmed on the ground, and their intel seems to be better than anticipated. SG-1 and the NID have all tracked the goa'uld to the university although neither team seems to have identified the aliens yet. Section does not want a conflict with SG-1, so the mission protocol has changed."
"Sir?" Clare asked, and the fear was just below her façade of calm.
"You and Makepeace are to remain out of sight at all times," Jim said. "Tobias, continue trying to track the goa'uld through their computer activity. Makepeace, you and Clark are in charge of security for Tobias and the computer and communications equipment. At no time are any of you to leave this building."
"Sir," Makepeace said, his lips drawn to a thin, tight line. "What is the mission protocol if SG-1 breaches security?"
Jim stared at the man, and it took Blair a second to process what Makepeace was asking. Blair knew that Colonel O'Neill had arrested Makepeace after they'd served together for years, but Blair couldn't even guess whether Makepeace wanted permission to shoot the colonel or a promise that he wouldn't have to.
"Stay out of sight," Jim repeated. "If all else fails, wipe the computers and meet at checkpoint delta. If cornered, surrender, but you are not to provide any information to Stargate Command for any reason. Understood?" Jim looked from one face to another and they all nodded.
"What about me?" Karl asked calmly.
"You, Bruhn and Knudsen will form second unit. Spend as much time as you can tailing our two goa'ulds. Record all contacts and make your observations. You need to report back to Makepeace and Tobias… and Clark every four hours, keep downtime limited to the local area." Jim's eye had that minute twitch that suggested he was on the verge of completely losing his temper, and Blair touched his back, silently offering his support.
"And you?" Karl leaned forward, his face a study in polite curiosity and nothing more.
"Blair and I have our own orders. Dismissed." Jim stood up with his sidearm in hand, and for a panicked second, Blair had the vague impression he was going to use it on the team. Instead he slid it into the hidden holster at the small of his back.
Rebecca hesitated for so long that Makepeace gently slipped a hand under her elbow and twitched it to move her along, and then Blair found himself sitting in the room with a pacing Jim who was looking more like his spirit animal with every passing second.
"Jim," Blair said slowly and carefully. He took all his frustrations, labeled them and neatly set them aside as he tried to focus on the reality. "Jim, you need to talk to me before I do something drastic and unpleasant."
"Something—" Jim choked on what sounded like a laugh.
"Man, I am not kidding. I understand that on the street we can't talk. I am there with you on how you needed to maintain authority in front of the others. But this is just the two of us, and if you don't stop shutting me the fuck out, you're going to wake up with schmuck tattooed on your forehead in tribal symbols. And man, you do not want to know the tribal symbol for schmuck, much less have it tattooed on your head."
"Blair," Jim sighed.
"Unless the next words out of your mouth are an explanation or an apology, save it. I'm not a member of your team, I'm your fucking guide."
Jim opened his mouth, and Blair sprang up off the bed. "And if you say one fucking thing about me not actually being your guide because of this bond, I will strip naked and tackle you right now."
"You think you could take me?" And now Blair could see amusement in Jim's face and the deepening of those little lines at the corners of his mouth even if he wasn't technically smiling.
"I know more about your senses than you do, Ellison. If it came down to a fight, I’m betting on me." Blair gasped and took a step back as he realized what he had just said. "Shit. I didn't mean that. I'm frustrated, and I'm taking it out on you."
"So," Jim said as he crossed his arms, "you *don't* think you could take me?" he asked in a deceptively quiet voice that so wasn't fooling Blair.
"There is no answer that won't get me in trouble, so I'm taking the fifth," Blair quickly answered as he held his hands up in surrender. For a moment, he thought Jim might start yelling, or even worse, storm out, but instead Jim just scrubbed his face with his hand and took a deep breath.
"I am sorry, Chief."
"That apology had better be because of your shitty attitude and not because of some bizarre sense of guilt for dragging me into this, which you didn't."
Jim nodded and came over to the bed, sitting down heavily before he reached over and flipped the laptop shut.
"That bad?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded. "Out there. I zoned."
"Oh man, I was there. I haven't seen you check out like that for a while."
Jim was still nodding, and Blair sat next to him, so close that their thighs touched. Jim's hand reached out and hovered over Blair's knee for a second before he pulled it back without touching. "Clark isn't one of us."
"Rebecca? What? Oh shit. Is she a spy?" Blair hated this espionage crap. He wanted to trust people. He didn't want to turn into someone so closed off and suspicious that he couldn't open his heart to trust. Besides, of all the people on the team, he actually liked Rebecca the most. He so could not see her spying for the NID.
The low, strained chuckle from Jim made the hairs on Blair's arms stand up. "Jim?"
"She isn't one of us at all. She didn't come with us. She was on the street and she did something and all these memories came flooding in… meeting her in Section, training with her, the way she was the only one of the team to stick up for you when you kept screwing up during drills."
"But… Jim, that did happen." Blair could feel the panic start. Something was seriously wrong with Jim. Seriously.
Jim was already shaking his head. "No. It didn't. I could remember those things like one sheet of stained glass laying over another so that the pattern was distorted, so I just confirmed with Nikita. Our team has seven members: Makepeace, Tobias, Jurgen, Bruhn, Knudsen, you and me. There is no Rebecca Clark."
"Chief, trust me," Jim said with such seriousness that it derailed all of Blair's objections. "Whatever she did, it couldn't override the senses. She isn't one of us. She did something to make us remember things that aren't real. Section has no record of Rebecca Clark even existing."
"Fuck." Blair breathed the word, his brain still struggling to sort through memories that he suddenly found he couldn't trust. "What else is wrong in our memories? Oh man, this whole conflict we're having over bonding… is that real?"
"As far as I can tell, Rebecca Clark just added herself to our memories." Jim sounded tired.
"So, when you told them that we have a different mission protocol—we're going to find out where she came from?"
Jim sat and stared into space for so long that Blair just knew he wasn't going to like the next words to come out of his mouth. "We are officially compromised," Jim finally admitted.
"That's sounding ominously… ominous."
Jim shook his head and reached over to rest his hand on Blair's knee. "They aren't going to cancel us," he quickly reassured Blair, and Blair could feel his heart start to slow. He hadn't even realized it had been racing until that point. "They just don't trust us to be in command with compromised memories. They're sending another shadow unit to watch Clark, Makepeace and Tobias, and we have orders to make ourselves available to the other unit capable of eliminating the goa'uld threat while Section evaluates the Clark situation."
"In English?" Blair asked. He sure didn't know about any other units in the area.
"We're supposed to let SG-1 capture us so they can use my senses to identify the goa'uld," Jim said quietly.
"Aw, shit." Blair groaned and fell back on the bed so he could stare blankly at the ceiling. "Man, do you have any idea how many ways that could go wrong?"
"Yeah, Chief, I do. But it's that or disobey Section orders."
"Which is up there with suicide by cop, but with even more of a chance of ending up dead," Blair agreed.
"Yep. And we are not to mention Clark or her amazing ability to manipulate the human mind."
Blair rolled onto his side and frowned at Jim. "Wait. We aren't supposed to tell the frontline defenders of the Earth that either a new species of alien is invading or the goa'uld have a bright, shiny new toy that fucks with the mind? Jim?"
"I know." Jim scrubbed his face even harder. "I know, but those are the orders."
"Stupid orders, and you know how I feel about stupid orders."
"And if we do tell them?" Jim demanded as he stood up and started pacing again. "She slips false memories into their heads and they'll do whatever she tells them. She could convince them she's the president. We can't afford to compromise them. Our orders are to provide assistance and maintain a safe distance between Clark and SG-1."
"So we compromise Makepeace and Tobias by leaving them here with no warning." Blair knew he had scored a direct hit when Jim's jaw locked and his face lost much of its color.
"I know," Jim said softly. "I hate this, but we have to contain Clark and we don't know if she can remove thoughts as easily as she implants them."
"Jim, she could be reading us right now," Blair said, and now he could feel his heart starting to pound painfully fast.
"I felt it, Blair. Whatever she did, I felt it. And she was close to us on the street even though she looked different at the time. She was the heavy woman with the flower dress standing near one of the houses. But this power she has, it has to be chemical or biological because my senses can distinguish the real memory from the planted one. So, we just have to leave quickly without spending any time with her."
"And we leave Makepeace and Tobias."
"They're safer not knowing. She's here for information, and as long as Jurgen is bringing information back through here, she won't hurt anyone."
"You're hoping," Blair pointed out. Jim stopped mid-pace and nodded.
"I know the risk, Chief. And better than you, I know the consequences of having my judgment be fatally wrong. Get your jacket because we might be out late tonight. We aren't coming back here."
"Oh man, I'm going out to intentionally get myself captured by government agents. I need therapy. Lots of therapy."
"You've had lots of therapy, Darwin."
"Yeah, well, it obviously didn't take."
Blair sat up and stared at Jim before getting up and heading for the door. When Jim reached over and ruffled his hair, Blair closed his eyes and just tried for one second to pretend that this wasn't all completely freaking him out. It didn't work. They were so incredibly fucked.
"This is… this is so stupid I'm out of words, man," Blair muttered as he flipped through television stations so fast that not even Jim could tell what was on.
"How would you make contact?" Jim asked. "Then again, you already sat down next to one by accident. So, how would you make contact this time?" Blair stopped flipping for a second and glared. For a half-second, Jim thought he was about to get an earful of just exactly what Blair thought, but then he sighed, and went back to flipping through stations on the television.
"We obviously work for the cheap end of the conspiracy network. SG-1 gets a suite all to themselves," Blair pointed out as he glanced around at the hotel room. A fresh floral bouquet on the dark wood dining room table in the corner was starting to wilt, so Jim could guess the team had been here for three to four days with strict orders for housekeeping to not come into the room. Even so, they should have secured their room more effectively. Jim found it frighteningly simple to break in.
"We had an entire wing of the hotel," Jim pointed out.
"So not the same thing. We lied and cheated our way into that. Our tax dollars are actually paying for this," Blair said with a wave of his hand at the entertainment center, the small kitchen against one wall, the open doors into the two large bedrooms tastefully decorated in shades of red. "They have king sized beds. You think their team spends as much time screwing each other as ours?" Blair asked casually, but Jim had to grit his teeth to avoid snapping at the unasked question he could feel just under the surface. Yeah, Blair kept pushing the sex, but it wasn't easy to take when Blair had almost totally stopped smelling of desire. In the past, Blair had been a constant source of pheromones, to the point that Jim sometimes expected to be able to see a cloud around him like Pigpen in the comic strip. Jim hadn't been joking when he suggested that Blair might do a table leg because as horny as Blair was all the time, he might have in the absence of a better partner. Only now, the pheromones were almost absent.
"Military frowns on that, especially within a unit," Jim said shortly.
"Yeah, but I didn't see any signs encouraging it at Section, and our whole unit is getting more sex than Marilyn Monroe at a free-love commune," Blair pointed out.
"There's no smell of sex." Jim held the back of the chair tightly, resisting the urge to go sit next to Blair, to let his hand wander to Blair's knee and lean close. It would get him what he wanted in the short term, a burst of that delicious Blair lust. In the long run, it would cost him his friendship with Blair, and he was just starting to understand what he would do to avoid that.
"Man, you totally ruined my fun. I was going to try and figure out who slept with whom," Blair said, but his voice was strangely flat where Jim expected teasing playfulness.
"Blair," Jim sighed. Maybe he should deal with this issue head on. He would if he could figure out how to start, but how the hell did you demand an explanation when your partner wasn't doing anything consciously? Blair couldn't exactly control his hormones, and if the idea of having Jim physically addicted to his pheromones was enough to scare him out of having any pheromones, Jim couldn't blame him. But he couldn't find a way to tell Blair that he didn't blame him without it sounding like blame.
"Yeah?" Blair was staring at him in concern because Jim had hesitated too long.
"They're coming," Jim said, actually relieved that SG-1 was going to save him from the most awkward conversation of his life. Chasing a man was supposed to simplify things. He still remembered being nineteen and the unit captain coming through when Jim was taking some personal time to practice on the obstacle course. Back then, he'd been slightly on the scrawny side after growing faster than his body could keep up, and he'd struggled to make the Ranger requirements. The captain had leaned against the fence and watched for a long time as Jim ran the course, pushing himself to move faster and more efficiently each time.
'Nice form, Ellison.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'You ever tried fucking a man, Ellison?'
Jim had lost his balance and grabbed at the guide rope to keep from falling off the narrow plank. 'No, sir.'
'Think about it.' The captain had walked away. Twice more he'd watched Jim work on the obstacle course, offering advice on how to approach training and shave seconds off his time. The third time, he'd asked Jim if he wanted to trade handjobs. It really had been that simple. But with Sandburg, nothing was that simple. Four years of living together, and it still wasn't that simple.
Jim glanced over and Blair was clutching the remote tightly enough to break it, and his heart was pounding. With a frown, Jim moved around the chair and let his hand drop to Blair's shoulder. "Calm down, Chief. These are the good guys."
"Right. I know this." Blair nodded absent-mindedly, and Jim tightened his fingers a little. "Okay. I know, they're all about saving the world, not shooting two potential NID agents who've broken into their rooms without giving them a chance to explain."
"They have an archaeologist on the team. I don't think they're the shoot-first type," Jim pointed out. Blair nodded as if he understood, but his heart was still pounding too fast, and he really was about to strangle the remote control. Jim inched closer so that his hip pressed into Blair's arm as he reached down and gently liberated the remote. Letting his hand rest on Blair's wrist, Jim hated himself for needing the faint trace of pheromones that seeped into the air before Blair's face twisted and all hint of desire vanished. Getting the message loud and clear, Jim moved to the end of the couch so that he would be between Blair and the team.
"They know we're in here," Jim said as he leaned back against the arm of the couch and half-sat on it, trying for casual. "Colonel O'Neill is ordering the zats out, so even if they are the shoot-first sort, it's not going to be any worse than training."
"I'm still saying this plan sucks," Blair muttered.
"Yeah, but it's the one we were ordered to do," Jim pointed out. Blair glared at him, making it perfectly clear exactly what he thought of orders.
Jim tilted his head toward the door, watching the green light on the swipe-card lock flash before the door exploded in and armed SG-1 members stormed through. O'Neill was first, his zat held high as he lunged right. Teal'c held his zat lower and went to the left. Major Carter remained with her body half hidden by the door, and Jim could barely see Jackson's glasses as he peered from behind her. Jim just waited with his arms crossed, still leaning on the couch as he let them get into strategic positions.
"Did you get lost on the way to the registration desk maybe?" O'Neill asked as he lowered his weapon, but he could afford to. Carter moved into the room, and both Teal'c and Carter still had weapons trained on them. Jim deliberately leaned back in a position where he would have trouble countering an attack.
"I found the right place," Jim offered calmly. "Calm down, Chief, they're not going to shoot us," Jim said as he tilted his head toward Blair.
"Yeah, yeah, you say that now, but man, I know how annoying your cryptic act gets. Totally annoying." Blair crossed his arms over his chest and inched closer to Jim. Immediately, Jim could feel the shift in the air. Dr. Jackson slipped into the room, closing the door behind him, and both O'Neill and Carter relaxed slightly. Teal'c didn't. Even with the bandanna tied around his forehead, Jim could see the outline of the tattoo pressing against the fabric, and the feel a goa'uld larva this close made his skin crawl.
"Aren't you supposed to be in Cascade chasing down pickpockets and litterbugs?" O'Neill asked with more than a little sarcasm as he headed for the refrigerator in the kitchenette area.
"Pickpockets?" Blair almost yelped. "Oh man, that is so not cool. Reinforcing your own power construct by degrading others is the lowest form--"
"Relax, Chief," Jim interrupted before Blair could get going good. "He's just trying to let us know that he had us checked out."
"He could have done it without the insult. Totally not cool," Blair complained a little more quietly. Teal'c raised an eyebrow, but the zat remained steady.
"Hey, you're the ones who broke into my hotel room," O'Neill pointed out as he turned around with a soda in his hand.
"Dr. Sandburg, maybe you could explain what you're doing here," Jackson quickly interjected as he stepped forward, watching O'Neill for tacit permission to get in the middle. O'Neill leaned against the wall with his soda, and that seemed to be what Jackson wanted. "I read your paper on victimization as a form of psychological infantilism. Fascinating work."
"Um… thanks?" Blair said, obviously put off-balance by the sudden change of topic, and if Jim had to guess, that was Jackson's whole point.
"I have to wonder why you would be breaking into my rooms. There's not much about late dynasty Egypt that would be of interest, and I certainly would have offered you any assistance if you had asked."
Blair snorted. "And the zats are just Egyptian stelae, I suppose?"
Jim watched while SG-1 exchanged cautious glances. "We know about the goa'uld," Jim said calmly. "I've already identified two hosts and was working on identifying more when our paths crossed." Not even the way O'Neill focused on his soda could erase the impression Jim had that he had just aggravated a very powerful man. The casual attitude as O'Neill fingered the tab on the can didn't do anything to hide the steel under that exterior.
Eventually O'Neill made eye contact, and Jim stood up straight as the man evaluated his options. Blair started to say something, and Jim reached down and let his hand rest on Blair's shoulder, silencing him. O'Neill had to make this choice on his own.
"NID?" O'Neill asked.
Blair choked. "Oh man, not even. Those people suck, and not in the sexually satisfying sort of way."
Teal'c's eyebrow rose an entire inch and Dr. Jackson's face twisted and twitched for a second.
"Not fans of the NID then?" O'Neill finally turned his focus toward Blair, and Jim had to fight an urge to put himself between the two men.
"They want to capture the goa'uld, and excuse me, but capturing brain-sucking aliens is stupid on a level that I don't normally see outside of a horror flick."
This time, Dr. Jackson choked on something, and O'Neill's mouth actually twitched in a smile.
"They're not known for their great thinking," O'Neill admitted, "but that still doesn't answer the question of who you work for."
"Sir," Jim interrupted, "I don't have the authority to discuss my employers, but we were led to believe you would not get involved on Earth. In your absence, we were ordered to identify and eliminate the goa'uld."
This time O'Neill snorted. "I'm not letting snakeheads set up shop on Earth. However, I still don't see how a cop from Cascade is involved in this, and the amount of classified information you seem to have access to suggests that the safest course of action might be to transfer you to the nearest military facility."
Jim could feel Blair fist his shirt so tightly that it pulled across his chest. "You could do that," Jim agreed. He certainly wasn't going to try and get in a pissing contest with O'Neill over that. "However, I wouldn't be much help to you behind bars."
"Help?" O'Neill sounded way too amused, and Jim could hear Blair's heart start to pound a little faster as the smell of sour fear gave way to sharp anger.
"Oh man, Jim has done what you couldn't. We already know two of the goa'uld, and you're throwing away the best chance to identify the rest before they go off breeding or eating brains or whatever they do when they aren't playing their power games," Blair snapped.
O'Neill's mouth twitched in amusement before something more calm and serious settled across his features. "And how exactly has he done that?" O'Neill's voice was so quiet that Jim could imagine people falling for that facade of indifference. Blair didn't. He snapped his mouth shut and glared murder at the man.
"It's okay, Chief," Jim said as he turned enough to untangle Blair's hand from his shirt. "I'm a Sentinel. I can spot the goa'uld pretty easily, even from a distance. I can tell you that Teal'c is a jaffa, not just from his file, but from the way I can sense his goa'uld." Jim watched O'Neill's face. "You don't look surprised," he commented. Blair stood up, and Jim shifted to keep himself between Blair and Teal'c.
O'Neill was already nodding. "Your records said you had potential, but not that the senses had expressed. It's one reason why I always passed on your file when you were doing covert ops. My teams tended to go into isolated areas in small teams or pairs, and I didn't want you expressing those senses in the field."
"Sentinel?" Jackson asked. "Is there something you're not sharing with the rest of the class, Jack?"
Blair jumped in before O'Neill could answer. "Did you ever read Sir Richard Burton's work?"
"The guy who married Liz Taylor?" O'Neill immediately asked, and Jim flinched at the beginnings of a pissing contest between O'Neill and Sandburg as they rushed to interrupt each other. Jim had experience accepting orders, but for Blair, the concept of commanding officer didn't fit into his vocabulary. The concept of not interrupting a commanding officer obviously didn't exist either.
"The explorer," Blair said dryly as he rolled his eyes.
"He translated the Kama Sutra. We talked about him at the conference," Jackson agreed quickly. "You said he got you interested in anthropology."
"Totally. But as soon as I got over the fascination with bizarre body positions, most of which don't seem very enjoyable to me, I moved on to his work with South American natives."
"I thought he did most of his work in Arabic speaking areas," Jackson said with a frown as he moved forward a step. O'Neill didn't stop him, and Jim could only hope that indicated some sort of truce because he really didn't want to end up locked under some military base.
Blair smiled. "Oh yeah. Snuck into Mecca, which at the time was like... whoa! But he did work in South America with Sentinels--human beings with five senses heightened beyond the normal range. They can see birds a mile away and smell the game as it moves through an area. They're guardians used to protect the tribe."
"And some branches of the military use them as scouts and spies," O'Neill added, and Jackson turned to the colonel with a wide-eyed expression of shock.
"You knew about this?"
O'Neill shrugged. "No one uses them much since the seventies because, face it, technology pretty much makes the senses obsolete."
Jim flinched before Blair even got his tirade started. "Buddy, you're an idiot. An idiot with issues. No way does technology make the senses obsolete. That's like saying a bird is obsolete because we have airplanes, which is a total fallacy. The senses are integrated and more adaptable than any piece of equipment." Blair had slipped out from behind Jim, and Jim reached out and caught his guide's shoulder, reeling him back in when Blair's finger poked the air a little too close to O'Neill. "Otherwise, how is it that Jim has spotted the goa'uld, and you--for all your precious technology--are still bumbling around like the keystone cops?"
"Chief," Jim warned as O'Neill's face went blank. That wasn't an expression you ever wanted to see on the face of a commanding officer or someone holding you at gunpoint. "Our orders are to cooperate and to offer assistance in identifying the goa'uld. If you don't want assistance, I'll describe the two hosts I have identified, and we'll go our own way."
"Back to your handlers," O'Neill stated.
"I assume they would collect us," Jim agreed. "As of right now, I don't have a way to contact them because it was assumed that you would rather I not report on your activities."
O'Neill gestured toward Teal'c, and he lowered his zat, sliding it under his jacket. The man looked as dangerous without the weapon as he had with it drawn.
"So, you were ordered to report to me?" O'Neill checked.
"Yes, sir," Jim agreed. Blair stood stubbornly silent on the matter.
"Sweet," O'Neill smiled. "Then as your commanding officer, I would appreciate it if you left your weapons here and waited in the far bedroom." Even though O'Neill had a friendly, suddenly pleasant expression, Jim could feel the dread settle in his stomach. Right then, O'Neill would be calling for MP's to come collect them. There wasn't much he could do about that now. He just nodded and slipped his arm around Blair's shoulders to push him toward the bedroom.
"We didn't bring weapons."
"I'm sure you won't mind if I send Teal'c along to check on that." Jim stopped for just a second, but it was long enough to signal Blair there was a problem.
"No way," Blair blurted as he slipped out from under Jim's arm. "He's already controlling himself around one of those alien things, but you can't expect him to stand still and let one touch him. It's instinctive. He knows that thing is a danger to the tribe and it sets off his internal alarms. Man, you may have heard of a Sentinel, but you have no clue what the fuck you're doing if you ignore his instincts."
"Blair, enough," Jim snapped as he reached out and grabbed Blair's arm. He had to use his superior strength to physically haul Blair back when the man clearly wanted to rip O'Neill's eyes out. "I'll deal. Move." Jim still ended up just about dragging Blair back to the bedroom and then standing between Blair and the door.
"He's an ass!" Blair declared the second they were in the room.
"He's an ass who you've been ordered to report to and who can hear you," Jim countered. Jim had the pleasure of hearing O'Neill's team pretty much tell him the same thing. At least Jackson was. Jim tilted his head, and immediately Blair was there, his palm resting against Jim's chest as his warmth soaked into places where Jim was increasingly feeling cold and achy. Bending down, he repeated the furious whispers he could clearly hear from the front room.
"Jack, that was out of line."
"Give it a break, Daniel."
"No, Jack. They probably think you're calling for the firing squad."
"For cryin' out loud. I'm calling the General."
"And how are they supposed to know that?" Jackson hissed angrily.
"He's a Sentinel!" Jack yelled that one loud enough that Blair jumped, obviously hearing that shout on his own. "He is probably listening to every word."
"Sir," Carter said, her voice much softer than the other two, "if he can identify goa'uld maybe we..."
"Don't say it Carter."
"Literally. Don't say it. He has to be listening to every word. Write whatever you're going to say."
Pencil scratched across the rough surface of paper for several seconds, and Jim almost lost himself in the rub and brush of the strokes before Blair's hand cupped his cheek, pulling him back to the present.
"They're writing notes to each other," Jim whispered.
"I don't suppose you'd be up for a test to see if you can identify the pen strokes--you know whether the sound is going away or coming toward you and how long the stroke is?" Blair said hopefully. Jim looked down at his guide with fond exasperation.
"How am I supposed to know if I'm interpreting the sounds right?" Jim asked.
"Yeah. We should do that under test conditions, but I so need to remember that one."
Jim sighed at the idea of even more tests. Of course, the only thing worse than the idea of more tests was the idea of Blair being so turned off by the thought of bonding that he left altogether. Jim didn't like the idea of spending the next thirty years with Blair without being able to bond. He liked the idea of thirty years without Blair even less.
It was like reading that Section report had opened this hole and all he wanted to do was fill it by pulling Sandburg into his life so tightly he could never leave. But he wouldn't do that to Blair. Not even if it meant living without the pheromones that Blair used to put out with such startling regularity. Maybe if Blair got back to his own life and got to chase a couple of lab techs, the scent would be back. Jim shoved down a little primitive part of his brain that wanted to kill anyone Blair lusted over.
"Carter's coming," Jim said as he pushed Blair a step farther into the room and turned around to face her. It took only a second for her to come in the door, her face an impassive mask even though Jim could smell distress on her. Whatever the colonel had written, she didn't like it. But like a good little soldier, she'd go along; Jim had no doubt of that.
"Colonel O'Neill asked me to check you for weapons. I need you to move to the wall," she said, her voice almost apologetic.
Blair grumbled about territories and pissing contests as he moved to the wall and got into the position. Jim moved to his side and did the same, pressing his lips closed against all the angry words that wanted to come out as Major Carter quickly and efficiently frisked him. He really didn't like being on this end of the situation. He didn't like anything about this end of the situation. Unfortunately, he couldn't figure out what to do about any of it.
Jim sat on the end of the bed and listened as Dr. Jackson turned the pages on some book. Since Teal'c, Jackson, and Carter were in the other room, he didn't know whether the man was reading a mystery or Jim's covert ops file, but from the slow, regular rub of page against page, Jim was willing to bet he was engrossed in it. Someone, probably Carter, was making little clinking sounds, one piece of metal sliding against another in a distinctly mechanical noise. Teal'c made no sound, but Jim could still track him from the squelching sound of the snake in his stomach. The very sound of the alien made Jim's skin ache like it had touched something frozen.
Blair, meanwhile, was back to madly flipping channels, this time on the bedroom television. "Asshole," Blair grumbled again. For the last hour, he'd been randomly blurting curse words, and Jim was guessing they were all for Colonel O'Neill. Jim wasn't feeling particularly fond of the man himself, but he understood the colonel's need to be a soldier. Blair lacked that perspective. Suddenly, Blair stopped flipping and the television settled on a news station showing images from a protest with a lot of Asian people. "Oh man, we should short-sheet his bed or put all his clothes in the bathtub and turn on the shower," Blair said in a pretty vicious tone of voice. And since they'd been confined to the room O'Neill and Jackson shared, Blair could do it.
"What happened to turn the other cheek?" Jim asked.
"I'm Jewish. We don't have to turn the other cheek. We are so totally still on the eye for an eye."
Jim crossed his arms and just looked at Blair. The sense of righteous anger drained, and Blair slumped on the end of the bed.
"Fine," Blair finally groused. "No torturing the colonel, but he's still an asshole," Blair relented. "He's an asshole, and my karma is growing by the second. I'm risking a lifetime as a cockroach here."
With a sigh, Jim reached over and draped his arm over Blair's shoulders. "He's a commanding officer looking out for his team."
"And doing it by showing off his amazing power of being an asshole," Blair snorted. Jim just continued looking at Blair until the man finally sighed in exasperation. "Fine!" he growled. "He's looking out for his team, but that does not mean that he has to act like we're public enemy number one."
"From his perspective we are dangerous. We work for what is possibly the only agency in the world more secretive than his, only our boss doesn't answer to the President."
"Work for?" Blair made an amused sound. "Work for would imply we get paid, and the only things I've ever gotten from Section are a concussion and a tracker buried so deep in my back that I'm surprised I didn't cough it out when I got pneumonia. Jim, do you ever wonder if we could get those trackers surgically removed before Nikita or some retrieval team showed up?"
"No," Jim said firmly, "And Chief, not here," Jim looked quickly toward the door out to the outer area.
"You think the big one has Sentinel-sharp hearing?" Blair asked as he followed Jim's gaze. With a smile, he mock whispered loudly, "Jack O'Neill is an arrogant son of a bitch."
"Colonel O'Neill is looking out for his own team, and we are the ones who broke into their hotel, targeted Jackson at the conference…" Blair opened his mouth and Jim stood up and held out his hand to stop Blair from interrupting. "Even if you didn't target Dr. Jackson, you've been around police work long enough to know that it appears that you targeted him. And we work for an agency outside the United States which may or may not have the same agenda as O'Neill. I can't even offer him any reassurances that we're working for the good guys because I don't know for certain that we are. Are you really sure that you can blame him for not liking this situation?"
"Oh man, do not go there. I do not want to be reasonable and consider this from his point of view. He fucking called you obsolete," Blair complained, but Jim knew that frown. It meant that Blair was thinking … really thinking about something he didn't want to think about. At least now O'Neill's wardrobe wouldn't end up in the bathtub—hopefully.
"He's coming back," Jim said quietly as looked at the closed door to the main room. In the hotel room, O'Neill had limited himself to asking the general for the location of the nearest secure phone, which meant that Jim had no idea what O'Neill and his general had decided. However, he couldn't hear extra guards coming with the colonel, so hopefully that meant that they weren't going to get dragged off to the nearest Air Force base and thrown into a cell.
"He's alone," Jim reassured his partner. Blair closed his eyes and nodded, and Jim could almost see the fear drain from Blair.
"Man, I do not want to end up under some military jail. I like my life. Do you know how long I worked for that PhD?" Blair whispered Sentinel-soft as he stood and stepped to Jim's side.
"I know, Chief," Jim said, resting his hand on Blair's arm. Hopefully this time the meeting would go a little better, but Jim wasn't counting on it. "Just don't poke at him, okay?"
"Man, if he plays his alpha games with me, I am so poking him right back," Blair snorted, and Jim had to roll his eyes. For someone who insisted that he didn't play 'alpha games', Blair spent a whole lot of time making sure that he didn't end up at the bottom of the pile.
"I'm back, kids," a cheerful voice called and within a couple of seconds, the door came open. Colonel O'Neill stood there in his jeans and a casual shirt and a wide smirk that made Blair tense up immediately. Jim tightened his hand around Blair's arm. "Why don't we have a little talk?" O'Neill invited them into the main room, stepping back without ever blocking Teal'c's line of fire, a fact Jim certainly didn't miss. He stepped forward, watching the jaffa as he moved to the side of the room and leaned back against the desk. Blair crossed his arms and glared at everyone in the room as he took a position just in front of Jim.
Jim's instincts screamed at him to pull Blair back, but Jim knew that the danger here wasn't from physical violence. These people weren't going to shoot them; they might, however, lock them away, and that was a threat Jim couldn't defend against. If he and Blair went fugitive, they wouldn't last long and they would lose everything that they had built.
"So…" O'Neill drawled the word out cheerfully, "I have permission to do whatever I want with you two. I think now would be a good time for you to convince me to not throw you under the nearest stockade," O'Neill grinned as he sat on the arm of the couch.
"You're an asshole," Blair immediately snapped, and Daniel half turned away and started cleaning his glasses with an expression that came close to amusement. O'Neill, however, did not look amused. "Man, we offered to help. We offered to identify the two goa'uld for you, but you have to play your fucking games. We're offering the same thing now that we offered before, so what exactly did you gain, here?"
Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder.
"I'm guessing you truly aren't military," O'Neill commented as he considered Blair with a tight smile.
"Jack," Daniel jumped in, "they're offering to help us identify the goa'uld, so maybe we could start with that."
O'Neill sat on the couch, his gaze still locked on Blair. Blair just crossed his arms and glared right back.
Jim had to stifle a sigh of frustration. "Sir, our objectives are not at cross purposes. If you know about Sentinels, then you know there's an…" Jim hesitated, hating to even say the next part, "instinctive drive to protect the tribe. I want to help you identify and eliminate this threat."
"And your handlers? Are they always this accommodating?" O'Neill asked as he leaned forward.
Jim frowned as he scented the air softly drifting from O'Neill and toward him in the lazy drafts from the ventilation system. "Did your commanding officer give you permission to question us about our handlers?" Jim asked as he studied the man.
O'Neill's heart thumped steadily and his eyes remained steady and focused as he raised an eyebrow. "In case you didn't get a thorough briefing, I'm the officer in charge of security for the whole planet," O'Neill said, "So, yeah, I get to question you on anything I want. And when I'm through, the general is going to question you, and then the president. Or, you might not rate the actual president. I'm guessing a presidential flunky will get that honor."
When Blair's heart rate soared, Jim gave his friend's shoulder a quick squeeze. "You're lying," Jim said confidently.
Almost immediately, Blair's fear-sharp scent took on the musk of anger. "He's lying?" Blair almost squeaked in his outrage. "Oh man, you are officially the biggest asshole I have ever met. A walking hemorrhoid!"
O'Neill's mouth tightened into a straight line, and Daniel coughed and spluttered as he tried to clear his throat.
"Look, Squirt, I'm cutting you some slack because you're obviously a civilian, but I know more about Sentinels than you think, and there's no way—"
"You smell like you're lying," Jim interrupted. "You're right, your heart rate and pupil dilation are steady, but no human can control his smell."
"And no Sentinel can smell truth," Jack countered.
"Oh man, he so busted you," Blair laughed. "And we are so testing this when we get home. Why didn't you tell me that lying makes a person smell different?" Blair demanded as he looked up at Jim. "It has to be stress hormones, cortisol or norepinephrine. Seriously, why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Because most people give themselves away with heart rate and pupil dilation." Jim looked down at his guide fondly. The anger and fear had almost instantly vanished, and now he had the bounce that Jim associated with him getting stuck doing a lot more testing. "However, even your training can't make a lie smell like the truth," Jim told O'Neill with confidence. He could see O'Neill waver, his pupils dilating now as he considered what to do now that his bluff had been called.
"Sir, if they identify the goa'uld, Teal'c or I could confirm the identification. We wouldn't need to rely on their information," Carter offered softly.
Blair snorted. "This is so not fair. I finally offer to help the military instead of picketing against them, and I still get treated like shit."
"Not a fan?" Daniel asked with a smile.
"Are you kidding? The military is like secret central. I could go on for hours about how screwed up the U.S. military is, and that's not even counting the whole hiding-the-aliens conspiracy."
"Crap," O'Neill sighed. "I just totally lost control here, didn't I?"
"Indeed you did not," Teal'c offered with a calm assurance, and O'Neill looked at him with an expression Jim couldn't read, it looked something like resignation.
"Fine," O'Neill told Blair as he stood up and went for the refrigerator. "The president apparently believes that we should have a handcuffs-free policy toward you two. He seems to feel that your agency is more likely than not to help us on this mission. He also doesn't trust either of you as far as he could throw you, and with his recent heart trouble, that wouldn't be far. I doubt he could even throw you, Sandburg," O'Neill dug in a little bit. Jim could have told the man to give up trying to insult Blair about his lack of muscle or size, but he figured as long as O'Neill was focusing on that, he wasn't hitting any of Blair's real hot buttons.
"Whatever," Blair said dismissively.
O'Neill glared a little harder, obviously annoyed that Blair wasn't even a little offended. "And this is highest security clearance. That means that the details of this mission or anything regarding Stargate Command cannot appear in any of your mother's crackpot conspiracy theory groups."
Jim still had his hand on Blair's shoulder, so he could feel the man tense up the second O'Neill mentioned Naomi. That would have been part of a standard background check, but it had obviously caught Blair off-guard.
"You do see the irony here, yes?" Blair demanded. "I mean, you're calling Naomi a crackpot for believing in conspiracies, which would be way more convincing if you weren't part of a government conspiracy."
"And you aren't?" O'Neill demanded as he pulled a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.
"Government conspiracy? No way. Well, not until now. Our conspiracy is totally non-governmental," Blair said, and Jim tightened his hand in warning. O'Neill had to suspect Section, so they really didn't need to give him any clues. As usual, Blair totally ignored him. "And you don't have to worry about your precious secret, because while I would love to piss you off, being tortured to death is so not on my list of life experiences to try out."
"Tortured?" Daniel abandoned the wall where he'd been doing a good impression of unobtrusive and stepped closer. O'Neill just gave Blair a particularly searching look.
"We have a job to do," Jim said as he stepped forward and not-so-subtly pushed Blair back behind him. "If you have a map of the city, I'll show you where we identified the two goa'uld. If we stake out the area, we might be able to identify them again. I'll recognize the feeling of having one near me the second time around," Jim said, quickly distracting all of them from Blair's little announcement. Jackson looked ill. Carter was just standing there with her eyes wide. O'Neill's narrow-eyed look pretty much suggested that he had just put 'torturing their own operatives to death' together with 'Section,' even if he didn't know the actual name. And Teal'c… well, the alien looked pretty much like he always looked. However, Jim could see the tension on either side of the man's eyes that suggested the idea of a group torturing their own operatives to death bothered the man.
"Blair?" Jackson asked, and Blair looked over. "Are you in danger?"
Blair snorted. "Nietzsche would have loved me, man. I'm all about living dangerously."
"And we're all in danger until we find out what the goa'uld are doing here," Jim interrupted. "Map?"
"Yeah, I have one here," Carter offered as she went to the desk and pulled out a map of Maribor. Laying it out on the coffee table, she glanced toward O'Neill, but he was back to watching impassively. Jim gave Blair's shoulder one last squeeze before he walked over and sat on the couch.
"We encountered two hostiles here," Jim said pointing at the street. "The two were walking east, and we confirmed that they ended up at this hotel. We don't have information about when they left."
"You lost them?" O'Neill asked as he finally left his casual slouch against the wall and came over to stand by the coffee table. It left him perilously close to Blair, and Jim had to fight his instinct to get between the two of them. Right now, Blair wanted to punch O'Neill. And since Blair wasn't one to solve his problems with fists, he was probably trying to figure out how to verbally eviscerate the colonel, and O'Neill wasn't the type to take that kindly.
"We were ordered to break all contact with our team, so we have no information on when they left or if they left," Jim corrected the man. "Nor will either of us identify other members of our former team."
"Yet you left them," Teal'c said. The words may have been a simple statement of fact, but Jim felt the sting of them anyway. Of course, Teal'c didn't know that it was even worse than that. Jim hadn't just left his team, he'd left them with an impostor in their midst and no way of identifying her. He'd left them when the team was so fragmented that no one person could take command, not without Nikita's specific sanction. Makepeace would never listen to any other member of the team, and neither Bruhn nor Knudsen would take orders from Makepeace. They weren't a team Jim had chosen, but neither was the group he'd led to their deaths in Peru.
"I wasn't asked for my opinion on the feasibility of leaving the team," Jim said as he tried not to clench his jaw with only limited success.
"Don't go there," Blair warned as he practically shoved O'Neill aside in order to reach the couch and sit next to Jim, but O'Neill's glare of death was lost on the younger man.
"Look," Jim said as he leaned back and looked up at the members of SG-1 who had gravitated closer, Daniel standing just behind O'Neill, Teal'c near the television cabinet, and Carter half way between Teal'c and O'Neill. "You want the aliens dead, yes?"
"Yeah," O'Neill said suspiciously.
"I really want the aliens dead, so let's work together so that we can get this done and never see each other again," Jim suggested.
O'Neill was silent for a moment before he nodded. "I can work with that."
The street was quiet. The low clouds had chased most of the tourists inside, and the natives hurried along the sidewalks hoping to get home before the rain started.
"So, how did an anthropologist end up working with a sentinel?" Daniel asked as he walked next to Blair. Blair fought the urge to turn around and check to see where Jack and Jim were. Yeah, they were somewhere behind them, but he hated having Jim so far out of his sight. Weird. In Cascade, Jim did his thing and Blair was off somewhere else about as often as not. But right now, every inch of space between them made his skin itch as though he were the sentinel.
"Blair?" Daniel asked, frowning in concern.
"Not really the time," Blair pointed out with a wave toward the street in general.
Daniel blushed. Blair had to remind himself that most of Daniel's missions were off-planet where the chances of being overheard by the wrong people weren't actually that high. When Blair had a really uncharitable urge to say something unkind about Daniel's inadequate common sense, he clamped down on it.
"So, how did you end up working with Jim?" Daniel edited his question.
"How did you end up working with Jack?" Blair shot right back, not really in the mood to play nice. He hated this whole situation, and a little part of him knew that Daniel was just the most convenient target, but that didn't change the fact that Blair was enjoying taking a few shots at the man. Blair didn't know what aggravated him more, O'Neill's shitty attitude or the fact that Daniel obviously disagreed and still stood silent and let Jack get away with being an asshole. And the fact that he had actually liked Daniel all the way up to the point when Daniel let Jack go ripping into them... that just made him all the crankier.
"I got hired to do some translating work," Daniel answered in a surprisingly friendly tone. "Jack was really just about ready to kill me the first time we worked together." Daniel chuckled. "But after he saved me from my own curiosity a few times, he got used to having me around. Besides, life is never boring with me." Blair glanced over, and Daniel had a self-deprecating grin on his face as he shrugged.
"And the fact that he's an asshole doesn't bother you at all?"
Daniel pursed his lips and paused for a second. "We all have our faults. Jack likes to point out that my overdeveloped curiosity and underdeveloped sense of self-preservation are both dangerous. But then again, Jack's no saint. Not only is he an asshole, but he's terrible with names, he has no patience for the fact that archeology and diplomacy both take time and patience, and he's obsessed with fishing and the Simpsons." Daniel gave a small laugh. "He does seem to have more faults than most people, doesn't he?"
"Like being a rude, arrogant prick?" Blair suggested as they reached the main square and settled in on the same bench where Makepeace had been sitting hours ago. Blair firmly kept his eyes focused on the trailing edge of a gray cloud. If the others were here, he didn't want to see them. Blair totally sucked at pretending to not know people and he knew it. The thought of the rest of the team back at the hotel with a potentially deadly alien right in the middle of the team made him a little queasy, but he couldn't do anything about that, not without telling SG-1 everything, and that was dangerous on so many levels that Blair didn't even want to think about it.
"Oh, I don't know. He's not arrogant enough to break into someone's room and set up camp," Daniel pointed out. That distracted Blair from cloud watching.
"No way. We were just trying to cut through the bullshit."
"By invading our space?"
"By not playing these alpha chest-thumping games and laying all our cards on the table."
"Not playing alpha?" Daniel choked a bit before the expression turned to laughter. "Right. Invading someone else's territory and then facing them down… that's your definition of not playing alpha?"
Blair narrowed his eyes. "I liked you a lot more when you were doing research for some crackpot theory on Egypt."
Daniel crossed his arms, and Blair wasn't sure if that was an aggressive or a self-protecting gesture because the man's face lost all emotion.
When Daniel didn't say anything, Blair sighed and yanked the hair tie out of his hair, tangling a couple of curls in it so he ripped out a few hairs. "Oh man, I am approaching Jack O'Neill levels of asshole here. I'm sorry. I'm just really about ready to explode over this whole…" Blair gestured toward the whole world. "I'm not normally this defensive."
"Or aggressive?" Daniel asked.
"Or aggressive," Blair sighed as he realized he really had been out of line. He was totally out of line, and Daniel was actually being a pretty good sport about it. "No way do you deserve it because I know you do good stuff, which we will not be discussing here, but man, I am totally in awe of what you do. It's just… it's been a hard week, you know?" Blair pushed his hair back into a new ponytail and wrapped the tie around it again.
"Oh, I know," Daniel agreed with an expression that made it very clear he'd had more than his share of shitty weeks. "No hard feelings."
"Been there, bought the t-shirt?" Blair guessed.
Daniel gave a fleeting frown before an impish grin appeared. "More like the wardrobe."
"Oh yeah. Man, we're academics. How'd we get in with serial killers and wack jobs and alpha dogs, oh my?" Blair jokingly sing-songed the words to the tune of Wizard of Oz. A woman with a paper shopping bag hurried past, barely sparing the two of them a glance even if they were pretty suspicious sitting out in the open waiting for the rain to drench them. Blair fingered his umbrella and gave the sky another look.
"What? Your university didn't have wack jobs and alpha dogs?" Daniel asked incredulously. "I've watched teaching fellows chew their own arms off to escape the grip of some tenured professor from hell."
"Oh hell, yeah. Totally. My friend got stuck teaching for Dr. Wizeman over in engineering at Rainier. The man does not believe in awarding more than one A per semester, and that's not even per class. He won't have more than one A in all of his classes combined. Anyway, my friend filed the grades he believed students had earned, and Wizeman shows up at his office, confiscates the students' final exams, and then overrides Rick's grades. He drops everyone at least a letter. He was taking off points if the students fucking bent the corner of their test, and the students assumed that Rick just turned into an asshole at the last minute. Fucking alpha-dog one-upmanship bullshit."
Daniel nodded enthusiastically. "At the Oriental Institute, there was this one professor who gave a test by handing out a blank piece of paper and seeing how we'd all react to it," Daniel shared with a shiver of dread. "Then, when people were confused, he started lecturing about how we're all sheep and don't know how to think and no matter how smart we'd been told we were, we weren't. It came down to a simple equation: we were all idiots, and he was brilliant. All hail Professor Appleton." Daniel shook his head. "Alpha posturing is not relegated to physical confrontation."
"That's true," Blair snorted, "and then there's the whole system of have and have not. I mean, when I was a teaching fellow, I taught three classes, took two or three classes every semester, and was working on my dissertation, but they wouldn't give me one inch of office space to myself. But Dr. Paulson, who'd had a stroke and hadn't been on campus for over a year, still had his office with his nameplate. Man, it made no sense. Five years of that, I put up with five years of that. Putting up with Jim's anal-retentive house rules is nothing compared to that."
"I'm glad I skipped that part of the experience. I did my one required teaching semester at UCLA, and then I ran from the teaching fellowships." Daniel stretched his legs out in front of him.
"I wish I could've afforded to run," Blair said as he thought about how much easier life would have been without teaching. Some of those semesters, he'd sleep in the truck while Jim drove to the station just because that hour was the only sleep he'd get in a day. "How'd you get so lucky?"
Blair froze and then cringed. Oh yeah, there were shitload of scholarships available for orphans, but that was so not a good trade-off. Shit, and here he'd been giving the guy a hard time. Yep, schmuck, thy name is Sandburg.
"Oh man, I'm sorry," Blair said softly, and now he felt like an even bigger jerk for giving Daniel shit. A little part of his brain whispered words like argumentum ad misercordium and objected that Daniel had backed up Asshole O'Neill, orphan or not. Blair quickly shoved that entirely too logical part into the tightest box he could and slammed the lid. The guy deserved some slack, especially considering that he had saved the world, which trumped the times he and Jim had saved some woman or even saved entire parts of Cascade. "I didn't know. I didn't read any files on you guys."
Daniel shrugged. "It was a long time ago. Jack can be an asshole, but he's the closest thing I have to family. I've pulled some pretty dumb moves, and Jack is always there, even when he'd be better off cutting ties and running for the hills."
"Yeah, same for me and Jim," Blair agreed.
"You don't have your folks, either?" Daniel pulled up a leg and tucked it under him, and Blair caught a glimpse of Jim walking near the same tourist stall where Jurgen had been shopping earlier.
"I have my mom," Blair shrugged. "She's sort of the wild child type. You know, never tied down, not even by a kid. I don't know who my father was."
"You're good at your job," Blair offered with admiration.
"Your job... getting people to talk, to start dialogue and negotiation. Man, you're good. I was all ready to hold this against you, and now… not so much. I still think Jack's an asshole, though," Blair added after a pause.
Daniel smiled, and he looked far too young to have saved the world. "Some days, I would agree. But he's still my friend and the leader of our team."
"An asshole leader."
"You don't let things go easily, do you?" Daniel asked, his smile widening.
"Not so much, no."
"So, do you need help to get away from whoever is pulling your strings? We could help you, give you a new life or just help you escape." Daniel asked so casually that it took a second for Blair to really register what the man was offering. And then, the first feeling Blair had was fear… no, terror. Terror that someone would overhear and then Section would come sweeping in and take Jim away. For a half-second, Blair was back in that white room, watching Jim's stoic expression as the Section operatives cuffed him and took him away. He remembered the pained and helpless expression on Jim's face in that moment, and the way Blair had firmly believed in his heart that he would never see Jim again. When the guard had come for him, he'd gone every step expecting a bullet in the back of his head. And then he'd seen the operating table, and he'd fought, he'd fought with every ounce of strength, and he'd been helpless as they'd stripped his shirt and tied him down on that cold table.
"Breathe, Chief, just breathe." Jim's voice floated in on the waves of dizziness that had left Blair seeing spots and holding onto the bench with a death's grip. "Slow down there, Speedy. In… hold… out," Jim coached him. Blair struggled to get control of his breathing, and slowly the feeling of pressure choking him subsided. "Shhh," Jim hushed him, and Blair realized he was clinging to Jim with one hand and the bench with the other and he had pressed nearly his entire body up against Jim so that he could smell the faint traces of soap on Jim's skin and feel the soft cotton of his shirt under his cheek. A hand rubbed soothing circles on his back.
"Is he okay?"
"He's fine," Jim said sharply.
"Yeah, sure, you betcha, he looks fine," the voice answered sarcastically, and Blair pushed himself away from Jim. He wasn't a wuss. Okay, he was, but he could pull himself together after wussing out. Jim was sitting next to him on the bench, watching with a frown.
"Hey, no problem," Blair said weakly.
Jack O'Neill snorted, and Blair opened his eyes enough to glare at the man.
"Your man started this," Jim snapped as he glared at Daniel.
"I was just… I wanted to help."
"Oh man, you can put your Blessed Protector badge away, Ellison." Blair reached over and squeezed Jim's arm so the man would know he meant it. "He really was trying to help."
"By sending you into a panic attack?"
"Panic attack my ass," Jack said as he crossed his arms. "Ellison, you and I have both seen enough PTSD to recognize the signs. If Sandburg isn't steady in the field…"
"He is," Jim almost snarled.
"Look," Blair said as he stood up. He ended up having to grab for Jim's shoulder to stabilize himself, but at least that looked like one friend seeking normal and natural physical contact with another. . . hopefully. "There are just certain topics that are not good for the mental health. I know you were trying to help," Blair said to Daniel, "Totally. And I appreciate it. But short of leaving the planet, I'm not so sure you can help."
"Danny, what were you two talking about?" Jack asked as he looked over.
"Jack, there's no way that Blair would willingly be part of some secret agency."
"Daniel." That was not a friendly tone Jack was aiming at Daniel, and the look was even less friendly.
"He works with victims. His mother's a vegan pacifist."
"He's a genius. He started college at 16 and by the time he was 18, he had a juvenile record for protesting *against* violence."
"For cryin' out loud," Jack snapped.
"Jack." Daniel's voice had a pleading tone to it.
"Daniel, what did you say?" Jack demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Jim stood up, his arm sliding around Blair's waist. "He offered to help Blair start a new life, to escape."
Jack stared at Jim for a second before studying Blair. With a sigh, Jack looked up and muttered to the sky above. "No problem, simple mission, pop in-kill a snake-pop out. Danny, you never make things easy."
"Me!?" Daniel demanded, clearly ready to fight over that statement, but Jack held up his hand.
"Yes, you," Jack said firmly. "You just have to go and poke people with a stick until you find out the truth, don't you?"
Blair glanced over, and Daniel looked as confused as he felt.
"Actually, yes," Daniel answered.
Jack sighed and rolled his eyes again before he focused on Jim. "Sandburg panicked when Daniel talked about escaping, so I'm guessing you've tried that before. And if you've tried escaping, that means you aren't willingly working for your handlers. And you and I have both worked this field long enough that there's really only one non-governmental agency with that much control inside US borders."
"That's not something I will discuss," Jim said slowly and carefully, and Blair could feel the man's body stiffen.
Jack nodded. "Right, so we're going with denial. I can do that. I think that's stupid because you're talking to someone who has the ear of the President—the actual President, mind you, not the president of the Hair Club For Men—which means we could help, but if we're going for denial, I can do that, too."
Jim had gone stone-faced, and Blair could only lean into his partner and study a tiny weed struggling up through the cracks. He wondered if someone would have to get down there and pull it up by the roots or if the city just sprayed massive amounts of poison on everything.
"We have a job to do, and I can feel the goa'uld, that way," Jim said as he tilted his head toward the east. Immediately, Jack's expression cleared, and he ducked his head and whispered into his lapel.
"Murray, we've got company coming from the east, stay sharp." Blair couldn't hear the response, but Jim must have approved because he started moving, the hand at Blair's waist urging him in the direction of the goa'uld.
"Whoa there, bucko," Jack said as he reached out and caught Jim's arm. "Let's leave the doc at home for this one. Carter can come in and escort him back to the hotel."
"No fucking way," Blair snapped as he stepped away from Jim and got so close to Jack that he had to look up at the man. "I'm Jim's partner, and no way is he going in there without me."
"Hey, I understand about sentinels and companions, and I'm an open-minded kinda guy, ask Daniel," Jack said with a nod toward Daniel, who remained silent until Jack gave him a dirty look and started talking again, "but I’m not taking someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into a stressful situation. Stressful situation, stress disorder. Are you connecting the dots there, doc?"
"I'm fine. And I'm going with Jim," Blair said mulishly.
"Then you and Ellison will both go back to the hotel while we identify the snakes from your description. I won't take you in the field." Jack stared down coldly, and Blair got the feeling that no amount of cajoling or harassing was going to make the man budge. That didn't mean he was going to give up easily, though. There was more than one way to skin a stubborn colonel.
"Oh man, don't you get it? Jim's your best chance of identifying them from a distance. Who's to say that this is going to be the same goa'uld? For all we know, there are dozens here. And without Jim, you have zero chance of spotting any of them. Think about that," Blair said, playing on the man's need to accomplish his mission. For a second, he could feel Jack's indecision, and then the man shook his head.
"Not a chance, tough guy. You can go back with Carter or you and Ellison can go back with Carter, your choice." Jack looked back across the plaza, and Blair glanced over to where Carter was walking, a huge purse on her shoulder and a very touristy camera dangling from her neck. Blair glanced up at Jim, but the man was still doing his statue impression.
"I will protect Sandburg. He won't be in any danger, sir," Jim offered.
"No, he won't because he'll be back at the hotel with Carter watching Radio-teve-zeeza."
" Radiotelevizija Slovenija," Daniel corrected him.
Carter saved Daniel from any verbal retaliation. "Sir," Carter asked, "who's heading back for the hotel?"
"Well, kids?" Jack asked as he focused first on Jim and then on Blair. "Clock's ticking, here."
"Chief, do you want me to come back with you?" Jim asked.
Yeah, the only thing wimpier than getting kicked off a mission was dragging other people down too. "Hey, I'm fine. Seriously," Blair added when Jim looked at him suspiciously. "Man, just go identify some bad guys and hurry back. I'm not exactly thrilled with the backup here."
"For cryin' out loud, Sandburg, we do know what we're doing. If we didn't, you'd be worshipping some snakehead right now," Jack complained.
"Yeah, and you're completely clueless about sentinels. Less than clueless. You called him obsolete," Blair pointed out, still angry about that one.
Jack rolled his eyes. "Fine, I misspoke. I do that a lot with big words. Maybe I meant obscene or obscure or even obstreperous. Look, I'm not going to let anything happen to Ellison... or to you."
Blair snorted. "I might believe that if I thought you knew what you were doing. Look, the goa'uld are getting closer."
Jack glanced toward Jim, and the sentinel nodded.
"And if you knew what you were doing, you already would have known from his reactions," Blair pointed out, and that made Jack raise his eyebrows. "So, here's the deal. I'll go quietly with Carter, but we get to stay close enough to come running when you completely fuck up."
"Fuck up?" Jack demanded.
"Clock's ticking, here," Blair said sweetly, throwing Jack's words back at him. Jack glared even while Daniel had to turn around to hide the smirk Blair had glimpsed. "The café a block down?" Blair offered as a compromise. The hotel was just too far away.
"Fine," Jack snapped. "Carter, don't let the kid talk too much, he's worse than Daniel. And if he tries to start sweet talking you into something, shoot him with your zat."
"Yes, sir," Carter said with a smile as she slipped her arm around Blair's as though they were lovers walking arm in arm.
"Be careful," Blair said as he was pulled away from Jim.
"I'll be fine. You just watch out because you do not have a good record with armed women," Jim returned with a small smile, and Blair felt some of the ice around his heart soften. If Jim felt confident enough to joke, maybe things weren't completely screwed up.
"I haven't shot a date yet... at least not recently," Carter said with a smile as she tugged Blair into motion, and then Blair had to turn away from the other three because they were walking too fast for him to keep watching Jim. For several minutes, they walked in silence, Carter's boots clacking against the stones as they hurried. A few drops of rain splattered against Blair's face, but not enough to pull out his umbrella.
"They'll be fine," Carter said softly.
"O'Neill has no idea how sentinels work," Blair said softly.
"The colonel plays down his intelligence, but he knows what he's doing," Carter said as they stopped in front of the café and stopped to look at the outdoor menu. Blair moved closer and whispered.
"Lady, the people we worked for thought they had a clue until they met Jim. The colonel is so far out of his depth he doesn't even—" Blair broke off mid-word when Carter shoved him back so hard that he stumbled, caught his heel on a loose stone and ended up windmilling his arms and practically running backwards in a futile attempt to catch his balance. When his back hit a solid and warm chest, Blair finally looked up to see Carter hit with zat energy right before her body collapsed to the ground. The zat from her hand clattered uselessly to the ground.
"Aw, fuck," Blair cursed as he looked up at whoever he had fallen against. Sure enough, it was goa'uld number two from earlier. An inhumanly strong hand shoved him away, and then Blair's world erupted into pain as the zat blast ripped through every cell in his body. Well, fuck.
Jim froze in the middle of the street. Daniel noticed first, resting a hand on Jim's arm, and the creeping feeling of cold wrongness sank into Jim's flesh. Without a word, Jim turned and ran toward the plaza where he'd last seen Blair.
"Ellison!" Jack snapped, but he kept his voice low. The goa'uld they'd been tracking was on the other side of the Drava, the murky waters keeping them from getting close enough to have any shot at taking him out, but right now, Jim couldn't care less. The alien could have all of Slovenia if he wanted it, he just wanted his guide.
Jim charged through the plaza and toward the street where Carter had pulled Sandburg.
"Ellison!" called a voice behind him, but Jim filtered that out as he focused everything on scent. The bitter smell of ozone and zat discharge made his nose ache, and when he reached the café, the scent was almost overpowering.
"Soldier, you'd better explain yourself," O'Neill hissed as he came to a stop behind Ellison. "Danny, get Carter."
"She's not in there," Jim said before Jackson was half way to the door of the café. "Someone discharged zats, multiple firings."
"Multiple?" Daniel swallowed heavily.
"Check the café," O'Neill ordered calmly. "Ellison, you take east, sweep the area." O'Neill ordered Jim to cover the area they had just covered, but Jim ignored him. "Murray, we need you to sweep north of the current... hey!" O'Neill had been quietly speaking into his jacket, but the last bit he shouted in Jim's direction. Jim just kept walking north, reaching out with his senses as he sifted through every scent in the street. The rain was starting to sprinkle, each drop pounding against the stone as Jim walked faster.
"Ellison!" A hand grabbed his arm, and Jim shrugged off the touch with a growing impatience.
"Stand down, now!" When a body appeared in front of him, Jim stopped and blinked at the image of a very angry O'Neill, his zat gun out and held down by his leg.
"They have Sandburg," Jim growled.
"And Carter. We'll get them back. But right now, we don't even know who has them."
"The goa'uld," Jim said as he wrinkled his nose at the unnatural scent. And now, with Teal'c codenamed Murray coming closer, that unnatural scent intensified.
"You can tell that... in the rain... without your companion even here to center you?" O'Neill didn't even pretend to hide his disbelief.
Jim glared at the man and clenched his fists in an attempt to not grab O'Neill and slam him into the nearest wall. Daniel came running up.
"They're not there," he said.
"No shit, Sherlock," Jim offered as he started walking again. O'Neill didn't move, and Jim ended up chest to chest with the man. "Colonel, get out of my way," Jim said slowly.
"Stand down, Ellison. You agreed to take my orders, remember."
Jim struggled. If this were Simon, he would have no trouble following that order because he could trust Simon to act with Blair's best interests in mind. He didn't know O'Neill well enough to make the same assumption. On the one hand, the aliens had taken Carter, too, so he had a good reason to want to track them down. However, a man didn't reach O'Neill's rank without making sacrifices and learning to live with the consequences. That was the main reason Jim had left the service. After Peru, he knew he could never make a command decision again because he wouldn't put other lives on the line.
Jim cocked his head to the side and listened to distant whispers distorted by the rain that was now starting to fall a little harder.
"Does anyone have a visual on Blair?" That was Bruhn in the distance, his voice muffled by the rain and the echo from the buildings between them. Jim couldn't hear the answer, but Bruhn quickly followed with, "Keep on him. Ellison may follow. Do I offer Ellison backup if O'Neill becomes a problem?"
Jim really didn't like the sound of that. "I don't need back up," Jim said, hoping they either had him bugged or they were using a directional mike.
"I'm not offering backup. In fact, unless I started randomly blurting alien words again, I ordered you to stand down. Daniel, I am speaking English, yes?" O'Neill asked. Jim couldn't hear any response from the distant shadow, but he didn't know why. Bruhn might be following orders to not interact with him or Jim might have lost the sound in the rain which was falling with a steady patter now, mimicking a white noise generator.
"Unless there's something wrong with my hearing, yes," Daniel offered and he was looking strangely at Jim as well.
"My team has confirmed a visual, but I am under strict orders to keep the two teams separate," Jim explained briefly. Teal'c materialized silently from the shadow, but Jim wasn't surprised. The prickling feeling of the alien in Teal'c body made his stomach lurch queasily, so Teal'c had no chance of sneaking up on him.
"I heard no such confirmation," Teal'c said as he stood near the others, the rain soaking into his bandana so that the symbol below was even more visible.
"That's because you're not a sentinel," Jim said. "Sir, I can follow, and if you want to trail after me with your zat pointed at my back, that's fine, but I won't be able to keep the trail for long if it starts really raining." Jim forced his fists to unclench as he waited for O'Neill's order.
"If I say no, you're going anyway, aren't you?" the colonel asked.
"Yes, sir, I am. This is Blair."
"That's kinda my point. With your companion missing, should you be doing this?" For the first time, Jim could see the unmistakable signs of distress on O'Neill's face. The man had a good poker face, but not good enough to fool a sentinel. He was actually worried. Jim revised his impression of the man just a little.
"Sir, I track without Blair all the time. I'm a cop, and if I waited for Blair to get back from his endless meetings, I'd work about twenty hours a week instead of the forty or fifty I put in every week. Blair was right when he said you don't know the first thing about sentinels."
"I know exactly what the US military knows," O'Neill pointed out. He sighed. "And this would not be the first time the military didn't know nearly as much as they thought they did. Go. Find your partner," O'Neill said as he stepped to the side.
"Yes, sir," Jim agreed as he started trotting down the narrow road, his sense of smell wide open. The rancid smell of alien hit him so hard that he immediately gagged and had to brace himself against a brick building as he struggled with a need to not vomit.
"Okay, this is what I mean. This is not inspiring confidence, Colonel Ellison," O'Neill pointed out.
Jim carefully stood, his sense of smell dialed down as he looked at Teal'c who still stood behind Daniel even though Jim could smell him so clearly that he felt suffocated by the scent of something reptilian, but not, something so alien that Jim's every instinct was to rip it out and strangle it. "No offense, but that... thing," Jim gestured toward Teal'c stomach... it smells worse than any rotting body I've ever stood downwind of."
Teal'c's eyebrow rose. "I was unaware of any particular odor."
"It's there," Jim said as he started backing away. "I need to smell for Blair, before the rain washes the scent away, and I can't with you so near."
Teal'c's eyebrow twitched up another notch. O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Teal'c, you have our six. Danny, stay close and try not to get captured. Ellison, you have point."
Jim nodded and trotted down the road, getting a hundred yards or so before he started opening up smell again. The rain was pulling down scents from the air, the bitterness of sulfur oxides and the tang of ammonia trapped within each drop. Jim filtered that and focused on the scent of Blair. He'd seen whatever hit him... had seen it and had time to produce stress hormones, but when he'd been through here, he'd been unconscious. Jim picked up the pace, trotting down the road as the scent thinned. They'd put Blair in a car, but the windows had been open, so particles of Blair were still scattered in the air, floating like those messages tucked into bottles and tossed into the ocean.
But the bottles were getting fewer and farther between as the rain started coming down heavier now. Jim settled into a loping run, dodging locals who dashed from car to doorway and stray dogs seeking a dry stoop. Jim almost missed the turn. He had totally lost the scent and stood with the rain sliding down his back, and then the scent of Carter caught him. Thank god she was a woman, and a woman who was still young enough and healthy enough for menses, he thought as he doubled back and took a side road that was more alley than road. The neat trimmed streets were wilder here, weeds sticking out from the trellises and vines, and Jim slipped into double time.
His legs ached, and he dialed down his sense of touch as he pushed himself harder. He lost his balance once, slipping on the mud and falling to one knee before he could catch himself on a rail fence, and a body just about crashed into him from behind.
"Geez, Ellison, take it easy on an old guy with older knees."
Jim glanced back and O'Neill held the fence with one hand and shaded his eyes from the falling rain with the other. For all his complaints, the colonel looked fine. Jackson was wheezing as he caught up and grabbed at the fence. O'Neill's hand went to Jackson's back.
"I'm fine," Jackson panted.
"Yeah, you look fine."
Jackson waved his hand in a gesture obviously meant to wave O'Neill off. It didn't work.
"Are we near?" O'Neill asked as he looked around. Jim truly studied the area for the first time. It was raining harder than he thought, and the clouds were thick enough that he wasn't sure how much detail O'Neill could actually make out.
"Fairly close. I can smell Carter."
O'Neill frowned at him. "Carter? I thought sentinels were better at tracking their companions than random people. Ellison, if you're angling to take my astrophysicist away, I'll arm wrestle you for her."
"Carter is just easier to track right now," Jim said, not wanting to invade her privacy more than he had to.
"Which would indicate that you're beginning to bond with Carter. It's not happening colonel." O'Neill stepped forward aggressively, and Jim fought an urge to tell the man to fuck off.
"He's bonding with Sam?" Daniel stood wiping his rain-spotted glasses with his rain-soaked shirt. He shoved his glasses back on and then sighed unhappily. Jim suspected the man couldn't even see out of them. And O'Neill was worried about Blair in the field?
"No, he won't be," O'Neill warned darkly.
"She's just easier to smell this time of month," Jim finally snapped as he turned back toward the squat building in front of him.
"Oh." O'Neill didn't say anything else. Daniel cleared his throat and tried to clean his glasses again. Jim ignored them both and edged closer to the back of a red brick building with decorative bars on the windows, his hearing focused on the distant heartbeats muffled by the brick.
"That the place?" O'Neill asked, and Jim flinched as the words blasted through him, echoing against the inside of his skull. Jim glared, but O'Neill didn't react as he studied the building.
"Two heartbeats below the first level. Three on the main level, two more in the upper levels."
This time O'Neill did give Jim a long, hard stare. "What margin of error are we working with here?" he asked.
Jim flashed the man a cold look. "None."
"And I don't know how many are aliens," Jim added as he struggled against the creeping feeling of wrongness, "but some of them are."
"So, it's time for a little poking around," O'Neill offered with a grim cheerfulness. "What can you tell us about the inside?"
Jim glanced over, not sure what exactly O'Neill wanted, or if O'Neill just wanted to keep him too busy to break down the door and try to rip the goa'uld apart with his hands. The rain created tiny magnifiers that made the pores of the colonel's face zoom in and out of focus as they fell, and Jim turned back toward the house. "Second floor, third window in. It isn't latched," he said as he watched the warm air from inside the house swirl out into the growing chill of the evening.
"One of the heartbeats upstairs is slow: sleep or meditation probably. The two heartbeats in the basement are fast... I'm guessing at least one of those is Blair. On the main level, there's a..." Jim paused and tilted his head to the side. He could hear it, but he couldn't quite understand what he was hearing. He focused on the curtains on the first floor window until the weave became huge and he could see between the individual threads. Aw shit. like things weren't weird enough already, he thought to himself as the brown on brown mottling magnified until he could see those distant pores, and then nothing.
"Remember what I said about 'when you fucked up'?" Blair asked as he watched the new prisoners get poked and prodded down the basement steps. Jack was under one of Jim's arms and Daniel was under the other, and they were dragging an obviously-zoned Jim between them. They should just be glad Blair was in a cage or he so would have kicked Asshole O'Neill in the shin. Or at least he would have after they escaped.
"Shut up, Sandburg," Jack almost growled, and then one of the bad guys jabbed the colonel in the back with a zat.
"For cryin' out loud, I was yelling at him, not you," Jack snapped as he hurried a little faster. The goa'uld in front unlocked the cell next to the one he and Sam shared and stepped aside.
"It's a little damp, and the gothic theme isn't really my taste. I don't suppose you have another room available," Jack quipped as he helped drag Jim into the small cell. The aliens didn't answer as they slammed the door shut. Instead of using a heavy key, one of them touched a bright, shiny new square that had been installed over the lock with his palm jewelry, and something heavy slid into place. The two aliens walked out without a word.
"Lean him up against the bars," Blair said as he moved off the rough hewed bench and sat on the bricks near the bars that divided their two cells. "What did he zone on?"
"He was identifying heartbeats in the house. And you know, this would be why sentinels are obsolete," Jack said, but at least he carefully lowered Jim to the floor, cradling his neck until he could carefully settle the limp body against the cold bars. Blair reached through and turned Jim's face toward him.
"Come on back, buddy. I'm not in the same cell with the asshole, and I need you to wake up and punch him for me," Blair said in his calmest 'guide' voice. Jack looked at Blair strangely. "And after that," Blair said in the same calm voice, "I'm going to punch you for trying to hear through brick in a thunderstorm with aliens all around and without me. I mean, come on, you know better."
"Which is what I tried telling him back at the cafe," Jack said in a smug tone that did nothing to improve Blair's mood.
"You told him not to listen through brick for alien heartbeats all the way back at the cafe?" Blair asked. He still used his guide voice, but O'Neill obviously got the sarcasm anyway.
"I told him to not try and track you."
"Okay, I am naming O'Neill idiot of the year. I really need you to come back and punch him for me, big guy. I mean, what kind of an idiot thinks a sentinel can't track his own guide through a street? Seriously. I know you want to punch him for even thinking that about you," Blair told Jim, running his hands up and down Jim's arm. Jack said he'd zoned on hearing, but his eyes were huge and black, like his vision had been fully open.
This time Daniel interrupted, and from the look on Jack's face, Daniel was just making a preemptive move to avoid all-out war. "So, I guess we found their base of operations."
"Ya think?" Jack asked as he dropped onto the wooden bench in his cell. "If I get splinters in my ass, I'm blaming him," Jack said with a look in Jim's direction.
"Sir," Sam offered, and Blair was definitely getting the feeling that the two members of SG-1 were running interference for Jack's mouth, "if we can get one of the hand devices, I should be able to open the door."
"And your plan for getting a hand device would be..." Jack let his voice trail off. Sam got a sheepish expression and shrugged.
Blair ignored them. "Come on big guy," he said as he shielded Jim's eyes with his hand and kept stroking his arm. "Come on back now. I'm here, so you don't have to..." Blair stopped as Jim jerked and shook his head.
"What the fuck was that?"
"*That* was a zone," Jack offered.
"*You* are an asshole," Blair shot back before Jim had a chance to say anything. Blair could tell from the way Jim's body stiffened just how much he hated having zoned, especially in front of these people who weren't turning out to be the best allies in the world. "What did you see?" he asked Jim. There was nothing like the facts to distract the man when he got his guilt going.
"There was an alien."
"No... really?" Jack scoffed.
"Jack," Daniel warned softly, and Jack sighed and limited himself to glaring.
"There was a different kind of alien. The goa'uld were torturing it in the dining room." Jim's jaw had turned concrete, and Blair kept tracing soothing circles on Jim's arm through the bars.
"Aw, great," Jack sighed.
"Another kind?" Daniel asked at the same time.
"And we're stuck in here during a foothold situation... during two foothold situations," Jack corrected himself. "At least Teal'c is still out there."
"And our team," Jim added.
"Right, because I *want* your team to show up," Jack said sarcastically. "I know who you work for Ellison, and that does not inspire confidence."
"They get the job done," Jim said in that clipped and carefully controlled tone that told Blair that the man was just about ready to explode.
"I'd rather have my team show up because at least they aren't idiots and assholes," Blair jumped in. "Okay, one is an asshole of the first degree, but the others are competent, unlike some people."
"Hey!" Jack stood up.
"Jack," Daniel warned.
"No, no I'm not letting this slide. Look, Squirt, we got caught because your buddy checked out right in the middle of an op."
Jim almost bolted to his feet.
Blair followed Jim, getting up and pressing against the bars that separated him from O'Neill right when he wanted to deck the guy. "Hey, you are the one who asked him to listen. Let me give you a math test, and then in the middle of that test set off a fog horn in your ear and see how well you take it."
"I wouldn't zone out," Jack practically yelled.
"Jack!" Daniel said, clearly more desperate now.
"Sir, maybe we should try doing something to alert Teal'c to our specific location," Sam jumped in.
"Ellison endangered the mission," Jack plowed on, ignoring his team.
"No, you did," Blair almost screamed back. "You went into the field with the best soldier out there, one who possesses equipment you can't even imagine, but you didn't even bother to learn the tolerances or the specs or the safety features, and then *you* ordered the soldier to do something completely fucking stupid because you're too much of a fucking idiot to listen when I tell you that you're fucking up. Congratulations on getting *yourself* captured colonel." Blair was pressed up against the bars poking his finger in Jack's direction, and Jim caught his arm and pulled it close.
"Calm down, Chief."
"Calm down? Calm fucking down? He's trying to blame you! He never even fucking tried to understand, and then he fucking blames you?!"
"So he won't be getting a commendation for this mission," Jim said, and Blair was really annoyed by the hint of humor in Jim's voice. "But he's just believing his training. If anything, he's trying to cut us some slack because he let me track you and apparently the US government doesn't believe I'm capable of doing that without my designated babysitter."
"Oh please," Blair snorted.
"Chief, he can only know what his commanding officers have told him."
"Then his commanding officers are idiots."
"Hey! Oh wait, I might agree with that in some cases," Jack said. "Look, I never claimed to understand much about sentinels because I've never worked with them, but spacing out in the middle of an op is not really acceptable. And I'm not saying that to set you off again. Geez, is he always this annoying?"
"Yep," Jim answered cheerfully, and Blair poked Jim in the side.
Daniel stepped forward. "We all have the same goal here, and you're right that we don't know how to work with Colonel Ellison, but now that you're here, maybe we can focus on getting out," he said in a voice that reminded Blair of a psychiatrist... that 'talk nice to the crazy people' voice some of them had.
"Carter, you were here first, any good news?" Jack asked as he turned to the woman. Sam was kneeling in front of the door lock studying it.
"I wish I had something, sir. Without tools to break open this case, I don't really have any chance of picking the lock."
"Jim, what's wrong?" Blair asked as he watched the skin along Jim's arm goosepimple and twitch.
"Not even," Blair snorted. "Is it something you smell?" he guessed.
"He isn't checking into lala land again, is he?" Jack asked as he retreated to the bench and dropped down.
"Daniel!" O'Neill shot right back in the exact same tone. The two of them glared at each other for a second.
"Isolate each smell, one at a time, and label it," Blair said as he ignored their sniping and worked with his sentinel. Pressing forward, he reached both arms through the bars.
Jim sighed, and for a second, Blair thought he might argue. Instead, he started working through the exercise. "Water. It's contaminated... rust particles... dry cleaning solution..."
"Oh man, PCE groundwater contamination. We are so ruining our earth," Blair sighed. "You know what contaminated water smells like, label that and set it aside, what else?"
"Chalk?" Jim cocked his head.
"The walls." Jim paused. "The limestone walls, they have a lot of chalk in them."
Sam stood up. "That would mean the walls have a lower density than high-quality limestone or granite. We might be able to blast through the section of wall where the bars are set... at least if we had any explosives," Sam sighed.
"Keep going, Jim, what else?" Blair said. The heat of Jim's body was starting to remind him of issues he was resolutely not thinking about, but he was having trouble not thinking about them, especially when Jim reached through the bars and laid his hand on Blair's thigh.
"From the rain or the zat blast?"
"From the zat blast. It's clinging to your clothes." Jim turned and really stared at Blair, and Blair could feel the Blessed Protector crap start to gear up. Geez, he really had meant that as a joke.
"Hey, I'm fine. I'm way more pissed at O'Neill than Tweedles Dumb and Dumber upstairs. Come on, focus on the environment because something's setting you off. Set aside the ozone smell, it isn't a danger. Now I want you to identify the smell of each of us and set those smells aside as well."
Blair watched while Jim stared at each member of the team for a second before blinking and turning to the next one. Jack watched the process with undisguised skepticism, but Sam and Daniel edged closer. Finally, Jim nodded.
"Okay, start identifying what's left."
Suddenly, Jim jerked and gave a sound that came fair close to a hiss.
"Body parts," Jim almost growled.
"What? Where?" That had O'Neill on his feet, but Jim just shook his head.
"No, the aliens... that's why the smell bothered me so much, it's like seeing random body parts lying in the street. What the hell are they?"
Jack blinked at them for a second before looking first at Daniel and then Sam. "Okay, you two are the geeks, did that make sense to either of you?"
Blair glared at Jack for a second before focusing on his sentinel. "What makes them smell like body parts? Is it something to do with the host?"
Jim shook his head. "No, I can identify and separate the host easily, but the snake had human cells in it. It's like finding a piece of brain just sitting on the table."
"Okay, that's officially disgusting," Blair complained, and he didn't know what was more disgusting, the brain on the table metaphor or the fact that aliens had human bits in them.
Jack walked over, leaned on the bars and started at them with an inscrutable expression. "So, you expect me to believe that you can smell the cells inside a snake that is inside a host. Isn't that like smelling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma?"
"Oh man, you never learn, do you?" Blair rolled his eyes. "I've seen Jim identify a compound from the contamination inside a single drop of water. Hell, the very first time I got kidnapped, he smelled water from a dead woman's lungs, and under all the human decay, still found the scent of duck waste, and he is so much better now. You have no clue about how much a sentinel can do."
"Chief," Jim said quietly.
"No. No, I've tried to play nice, but I so should have put his clothes in the shower and short sheeted his bed when I had the chance. He's an asshole. And he has no clue how powerful sentinels are when they're paired with the right person."
"Jack, maybe..." Daniel stopped when Jack shot him an angry look.
"Daniel doesn't have his appendix," Jim said quietly.
"What? And, so, therefore?" Jack demanded. "What does that prove?"
"I can smell the appendix on the rest of you, but it's missing with him."
"You probably saw the scar," Jack said dismissively, and Blair opened his mouth to rip the man again. Jim reached through and caught him by the waist, pulling him close to the bars. "Sam has had a snake in her. The snake inside Teal'c belly came from the same genetic line as the snakes in those goa'uld upstairs. Teal'c also has a faint trace of something that almost smells like an insect."
All three member of SG1 were staring at Jim.
"He could have been briefed," Jack pointed out.
Jim stared at Jack. "My employers either don't have that much information or they chose not to share it. I suspect at least one of my team members might know some of that, but then he's not big on sharing either. I collected all that information from my senses, and I'm telling you now that the snakes have entirely human cells inside their bodies."
For a minute, the room was so quiet that Blair could hear the faint sound of thunder through the heavy walls of their prison.
"We do know that the goa'uld started using human DNA when they created jaffa, in order to make the body chemistry compatible," Sam pointed out. Both Sam and Jack glanced toward Daniel, and when Blair looked over, Daniel was a brilliant shade of white. Oh, there was a story there.
"We always assumed it meant the queen created a hybrid with every cell containing some human DNA code."
"What?" Blair demanded. "Okay, that doesn't even make sense. No way would a snake have the same number of chromosomes, and no way would the genetic code be similar enough for a hybrid to work."
"The queens can directly manipulate the DNA, they could manipulate the code. But they might also be creating a chimera," Sam said slowly.
"Okay, I know this is Danny's territory with the pointless mythology, but isn't a chimera a lion-snake thingy?" Jack ignored the way Daniel had gone from staring at the ground in obvious embarrassment at the mention of hybrids to glaring daggers at Jack.
Sam nodded. "Yeah, but it's also the name for a condition where one creature has pieces of another genetic code inside. It happens with twins." She brought up her two fists side by side. "One twin dies in the womb, and the other twin grows around the first undeveloped twin." She covered one fist with the other. "The surviving twin is fine, but if we take DNA samples, we'll find spots where his DNA doesn't match because those are the bits and pieces of the other twin. That's a chimera. If the goa'uld are using complete sections of human DNA in their own body, that could mean..." she trailed off.
"What?" Jack prompted.
"I have no idea, sir. I think our geneticists would be more than a little interested in knowing though."
"Jim, now that you've identified the problem, are you okay?" Blair asked softly, but the cells didn't have a lot of privacy, and Jack turned and stared at them.
Jim nodded. "I'm fine, Chief. Ground me, and I'll see what I can find out about what's going on."
"Sure thing." Blair nodded and curled his fingers around Jim's arm. Jim's head tilted to the side, but instead of giving a running commentary, he fell silent. Only his hand on Blair's back moving in lazy circles told Blair that Jim hadn't zoned.
"So?" Jack finally demanded in the silence. Jim blinked and looked at the man.
"Go Teal'c!" Jack cheered.
"My team is coming," Jim said, and suddenly Jack wasn't looking so happy. "Don't worry, Colonel. The person at the top gave me clear instructions to protect your position at all costs. You are not disposable or recruitable," Jim assured him. That obviously made Jack relax a little, but it didn't make Blair feel one bit better because something still had his sentinel wound so tight that he was about ready to crack molars.
Blair fidgeted, his gaze shifting from Jim to Jack and back as he tried to just wait for the rescue that Jim said was coming. Whatever was setting Jim off, he definitely didn't want to talk about it with Jack standing three feet away.
Jim's fingers tightened against his arm, and Blair's gaze darted to the door at the top of the stairs. Right on cue, a muffled boom echoed through the room.
"Dial it down," Blair said out of habit, but Jim didn't even twitch as figures in black darted through the smoke.
"Clear!" Jim called, letting the rescuers know that there weren't any guards. "Makepeace, you'd better have a good reason for breaking protocol," Jim growled as he stepped to the bars.
"Makepeace?!" Jack sounded about ready to swallow his own tongue. "Colonel Makepeace?!" he demanded as if he were hoping for some other Makepeace. He stepped right up next to Jim, and the whole atmosphere in the room shifted. Wisps of smoke from the explosion still drifted past, but they weren't enough to disguise the ex-colonel as the man stepped forward, only glancing at Jack before he focused on Jim.
"Change in orders from base. We were ordered in to assess and secure the area if feasible. It was."
"And the guest in the dining room?" Jim asked tightly, and then Blair figured out exactly why Jim was not happy. The spy Rebecca Clark stood there right behind Makepeace. Jim sidestepped, physically shoving Jack with his shoulder, and Blair just felt a helpless urge to shout 'watch out, mind-wiping alien.' Of course, the problem was that mind-wiping aliens could wipe out everyone's memory of him shouting that. It was a good three seconds before it occurred to him that Clark wasn't doing anything at all to stop the fact that Jim was trying to block her access. In fact, she just sort of retreated behind Makepeace rather than make any aggressive moves.
Now Jack—he was feeling more aggressive as he shoved right back, but despite a quick shoving match with Jim, his focus was clearly on Makepeace. "So, Robert, not good to see you again. Seen any good prison cells lately?" Jack said dryly. Jim's body was iron stiff.
"Makepeace, send Clark up to secure the perimeter and blow this lock," Jim snapped.
Makepeace opened his mouth to say something, but Clark slipped out from behind Makepeace, distracting all three men, and then Jim twitched violently. He stumbled back a step, and Blair cried out, not able to reach him. Jack was there, his hands at Jim's back helping to stabilize him.
"Fuck. What did you do?" Blair demanded. Stealth be damned, he just wanted some answers.
Clark ducked her head. "I'm sorry," she said softly as she again retreated, and Blair wasn't sure how to interpret all this. If she was aggressive, she so should have mind-wiped him, but instead she looked ready to run, as if he was the threat.
"Jim, come on man, come on back," Blair said as he temporarily ignored Clark and focused on Jim who blinked for a second, and then nodded.
"Chief, it's okay."
"Okay? It's not remotely okay," Blair growled. Whatever shiny new fake memories she'd given Jim, they weren't remotely okay.
"Chief," Jim said more firmly. "It's okay."
Blair looked at Jim in concern, but what he saw was a calm acceptance on Jim's face. Okay, calm might be the wrong word. He looked more than a little cranky, but there was acceptance there, too.
Jack looked from one to another. "I'd like to know what exactly is okay, because a traitor who's supposed to be in jail running round is not my definition of okay."
"Maybe there's an explanation," Daniel said hopefully, but no one hurried to provide one, and he was left looking from one person to another until even Daniel gave up.
Makepeace's face went stone cold. "Back off, O'Neill," Jim said. "Makepeace, blow this lock."
"Yes, sir," Makepeace said as he pulled out supplies. He handed half to Clark and she immediately went to the lock on Blair's cell and started attaching the explosives. Makepeace worked on the cell Jim and Jack shared, ignoring the shocked and angry looks he was getting from all of SG1.
Jack crossed his arms, and the same gesture that on Daniel looked shy on Jack looked like the man was ready to rip someone apart with his bare hands. "You know, a conviction for treason just isn't what it used to be. I remember the days when people actually took treason seriously."
"Sir," Sam said, "according to official records, Makepeace died of sudden unexpected cardiac death four months ago."
"He... what? Okay, he's looking good for a dead man, not that we aren't all known for getting up after a little dying, but short of a sarcophagus, shouldn't dead men, I don't know, stay dead?" Jack demanded as he turned to his second in command. "And shouldn't someone have told me?"
"I did," Daniel pointed out.
"No you didn't."
"Yes, I did."
"I would have remembered."
"No, Jack, you—" Daniel was cut off when Makepeace pushed a triggered the explosives. Two loud pops and the cell doors were open. Blair sneezed at the bitter smell.
"Jim?" he called.
"I'm fine, Chief. Makepeace, report, and keep it safe for little ears."
Blair snorted hard enough to make his nose hurt as he tried to avoid laughing at the murderous expression Jack shot in Jim's direction. Oh yeah, Section had changed their orders, and Jim was not having to play subordinate any more.
Makepeace, however, was all business as he held a P-90 out for Jim. "She's coming to deal with the unforeseen contingency and has an ETA inside an hour. We neutralized two NID agents and two more have retreated from the immediate area. Teal'c is outside the perimeter. Perimeter secure. No injuries." Makepeace didn't identify 'she,' but Blair could pretty much guess. Whatever was going on with the aliens behind door number two, it was enough to bring Nikita out. That wasn't actually a pleasant thought.
"We hold until she comes then," Jim said firmly as he checked his weapon and then accepted a smaller handgun from Makepeace. "Have Tobias give me an aerial of the area, I want all points of access identified as well as Teal'c's current location, but there will be no deadly force." Jim strode out of the cell, and Blair could see him slip into that role of 'colonel.' Blair darted around Sam to get to Jim's side.
"Tobias?!" Jack started coming out of his cell with an expression on his face like he had just bitten into a rotten egg. "It's just like old home week around here--Makepeace, Tobias... did Benedict Arnold come along too?"
Makepeace answered by raising his zat and taking aim. Jack stopped, his eyebrows going up. "Do you plan to graduate from treason to murder?" he asked casually.
Jim stepped to Makepeace's side. "Call Bruhn to take over down here. I want SG1 secure and out of the way until after she leaves." As Makepeace called for the backup, Jim turned to Clark, who ducked her head away from his look. She looked more like a frightened child than a mastermind who had infiltrated Section. "We'll talk upstairs," he told her, and she nodded mutely and turned to head for the stairs.
"You aren't to put foot on the staircase. If you do, either Makepeace or Bruhn will zat you," Jim said quietly.
"I'm sure you'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?" Jack demanded as he stared at Makepeace. Blair almost felt sorry for the man. All the time Jack had given them a hard time, he had never looked at them with the hate that shone through his eyes right now.
"No, Jack, I wouldn't," Makepeace said slowly as though afraid of what words might fall out of his mouth if he wasn't careful. "I've saved your ass often enough for you to know that's a cheap shot."
"That was you saving my ass when you sold us all out?" Jack gave the most annoying and unctuous grin Blair had ever seen. He wanted to punch the man.
"Jack," Makepeace said, emphasizing the colonel's name, and Blair was pretty sure that was an alpha-dog peeing technique... if you couldn't literally pee on someone, just deny them their title. But Makepeace's next words sounded almost wistful or maybe regretful was the better word. "I did what I thought was best for the security of our world."
"By pissing off our allies? Good call, there," Jack nodded in mock agreement. Makepeace went stiff.
"SG3, are they still in the field?" Makepeace asked, and for one second, Blair didn't think Jack was going to answer. Daniel had wrapped his arms around his stomach nervously, and Sam stood next to the open door to her cell, and the tension hung like wet cobwebs over everything. Bruhn appeared at the top of the stairs, but rather than come down, he waited, his eyes scanning the room nervously. The Section group was near the stairs, the SG1 members were still in the cells, and Blair held his breath as something dark and dangerous slid through the room. He so hoped no one started shooting.
"The rest of SG3 is great. A little embarrassed that their commanding officer was a backstabbing traitor, but other than that, good," Jack finally said.
"I never meant—"
"To turn traitor?"
"It's not like you didn't make command decisions that could have gone just as wrong, colonel," Makepeace almost growled, and Jack actually had the decency to look embarrassed. Daniel stepped forward, his arm just brushing against Jack's in some form of silent moral support, and for the first time, Blair could see how much this confrontation truly bothered Jack. Makepeace's eyes darted over to Clark for a second before he turned back to Jack.
"Colonel, don't leave SG3 out of all the diplomatic missions. Let them meet some aliens who aren't out to kill and conquer us. If the only aliens you ever meet are shooting at you..." Makepeace swallowed, "it skews your judgment. I would have followed you to hell, but hell was about the only place I ever followed you to, and that affected my decision-making process. Don't think I'm not still paying for that mistake," he offered.
Clark walked over and put her hand on Makepeace's arm, tilting her head to the side as she considered him. Makepeace almost had a human expression for a fleeting second, and then he backed up a couple of steps and took position next to the stairs with his back to the wall and his military persona back in place. Well shit. Something had sure happened between those two. Blair traded looks with Jim who had on a perfect poker face. Jack just looked shocked.
"Colonel," Jim said, "Makepeace and Tobias are working for an organization that the President has clearly been briefed on. I don't think you have the authority to countermand that. And as a member of my team, Makepeace doesn't have to put up with your shit. Makepeace upstairs," Jim ordered as he turned toward the stairs, "Bruhn," he said as the soldier started down the stairs, "you have permission to zat O'Neill if he even annoys you, and after spending one afternoon with the man, I suspect you may have to zat him a few times."
And then Jim was walking past, and Blair was hurrying after him, frowning at the easy way Jim allowed Clark and Makepeace to follow behind. Behind was where you let your allies walk, not alien enemies that might shoot you in the back. Oh yeah, something had definitely changed.
Jim pushed through into the main floor and headed down a hall without looking to either side. Blair was left trailing behind and feeling so very out of the loop. When Jim turned a corner and pushed through into a small dining room, Blair found himself frozen in the door, unable to move forward or go back.
And that was an alien.
That was not some alien inside a human host, that was an alien type alien. His face looked almost skull-like with a mouth that was too small and eyes that were too large and thick tentacle-like structures hanging from his head down his back where a person would have hair. His waist was impossibly thin, and his body looked emaciated, like the bones might come poking out the mottled brown skin.
Blair's brain took a second to process that before the other evidence started filtering in through the shock. Patches of skin had been burned black, and a purplish-red blood slowly leaked from a half dozen wounds.
"Please," Clark said, her voice desperate and high.
"Help him," Jim immediately said as he pulled Blair to the side so the others could get through the doorway. "Makepeace, find blankets, sheets, pillows. Drag a mattress in here if you can find one. "
"The perimeter," Makepeace objected for a second, but then he glanced over as Clark carefully unwound rope that had been tied so tightly that bits of skin clung to the fibers as she tried to untie her alien friend. Without another word, he nodded and disappeared.
"Chief?" Jim asked.
"Oh yeah, no problem," Blair said as he hurried to help Clark.
He knelt down and started working on the ropes around the alien's feet, flinching every time the alien make a clicking noise that was either a cry of pain or a curse. "Chief, take this," Jim said, and he held down a sidearm.
"I don't—" Blair glanced at Clark who was carefully not looking at them, and suddenly he realized he so could not shoot these people. He had a feeling these two really were the alien version of Ira and Edna Wiezman from Hoboken. A manipulative Ira and Edna who had clearly done some scrambling of memories, but then Blair had met a couple of Iras, and they were pretty manipulative, too. Making his decision, he shook his head no.
Jim sighed. "Chief, we still have NID out there. I'm going to hold perimeter with Knudsen, but if something happens, I need you to hold your own."
Blair glanced at Jim and then made a decision Jim was so going to kill him for. He turned to Clark. "Are you any good with guns? I'm not the best shot in the world."
Rebecca Clark hesitated, looking at him and then at Jim in clear shock. Slowly she shook her head. "My people avoid conflict. All we know how to do is hide. I don't think I could use a tool with the intent to end the life of another sentient being."
"Okay, that leaves me. I'm so not okay with ending a life, but if it's them or me, I can. I think. Maybe." Blair reached out and took the gun from Jim fully expecting the glare of death, but instead Jim just had a look of fond exasperation and a little worry on his face. Blair tucked the gun into his pants and went back to working on the ropes as Jim headed out of the room.
Blair worked in silence for a minute before he could even gather his thoughts enough to ask a half-way intelligent question. "So, you look like this?" Blair asked as he freed one foot and moved to the second.
"Yes. Except that I am female. The genitalia are different." Clark finished untying the hand and laid her palm on the alien's cheek, clicking reassuringly, but even Blair could tell the alien was drifting in and out of awareness.
"Wouldn't he feel more comfortable if you looked like you and not one of us?" Blair asked. "Especially since the goa'uld looked like us."
"You would not be bothered?"
"Oh, I'm freaking, but right now, the NID and the goa'uld and the fact that our boss with questionable morals is coming... that's all freaking me out way more than what you look like."
She nodded, and then in a shimmer, a brown alien to match the prisoner stood there. Just then Makepeace came in through the door dragging a twin mattress. "It's the best I could find," he said as he pulled it to a corner. When he turned, Blair saw the twitch of surprise when he found Clark in alien form, but then he quickly recovered. "Do you need water or blankets?"
"Just to lay him down," Clark said, and it was weird hearing her voice coming out of an alien, especially when Blair still had memories of her as a human, of her training with them in Section. Pushing that weirdness to the side, Blair finished untying the alien's foot and stood up, waiting to see what help Clark needed. She easily picked the alien up and carried him carefully to the mattress.
"I am so sorry I have deceived you both," she said as he knelt on the floor next to the mattress and gently stroked the injured man's limbs.
"Do you have medicine?" Blair asked, totally ignoring the comment. Yeah, he understood being scared and hiding, but a part of him felt totally violated. His brain... his memories... the thing that made him Blair had been invaded and violated and rearranged. And he couldn't even get too upset at the creature who had betrayed him because every instinct told him that she didn't have a cruel or malicious bone in her emaciated body. Manipulative... oh yeah. Makepeace had certainly mellowed a whole lot.
"If I can call for assistance, the others will come and help," she said as she looked up at them, clearly waiting for permission. Blair looked at Makepeace and the man actually looked uncomfortable.
"We need to wait for Nikita," he said unhappily. Clark nodded, the dreadlock-like tentacles bobbing. "I'm sorry," he said. "After what your people have suffered, I wish I could offer some sort of promise."
Clark's hands paused in their task for a moment. "Do not apologize. I have broken many of my people's laws. All of us who came here did. But Wayawayei did not deserve this."
"Oh man, no one deserves this," Blair echoed.
Blair sat on one of the dining room chairs and watched the two aliens and waited and wondered how exactly this was all going to turn out. He wished he understood what exactly had gone on with Makepeace. He wished he knew how Nikita was going to react. Hell, at this point he was just wishing someone would hit him really hard in the head so he developed a convenient case of amnesia.
"Chief, how is he?" Jim asked as he came in followed by two Section techs who silently started setting up equipment.
"You're asking me?" Blair asked. "Man, I have no clue."
Jim hesitated a second before he turned to Rebecca Clark. "Is he going to be okay?" Jim asked tersely. She nodded and continued her soft strokes across the mottled brown arm. The alien had fallen silent, his huge black eyes closed and Blair could only hope he'd found some peace in sleep, but then he wasn't sure aliens actually slept. He had a weird flash of fantasy: him doing an anthropological comparison and trying to get it published. And his dissertation committee had thought Sentinel studies were off the mainstream. Blair wondered if Daniel ever wrote papers about alien cultures that ended up buried in some top security government warehouse.
Clark spoke softly. "He is injured, but I think he will recover."
Jim nodded and then came and stood next to Blair, his hand finding Blair's shoulder as the techs set up a large screen on the television.
Jurgen and Knudsen came in the door. Knudsen looked about fifteen with his wide eyes flitting everywhere except to the aliens. Blair could almost hear his internal chant of 'don't stare, don't stare, don't stare.' He was guessing that Knudsen would much rather be in the basement with Bruhn and SG1, which was fair since he figured Bruhn and SG1 would rather be up here.
Clare Tobias came in after them and moved to stand near Jurgen while Makepeace had moved to the corner behind the two aliens, apart from everyone else. Nearly the whole dysfunctional team was back together again.
"Jim, what happened to the goa'uld?" Blair whispered.
"Three hits with a zat. Let's see a sarcophagus fix that," Jim said grimly. "That was the mission, Chief."
"And one that I'm weirdly okay with," Blair answered. "Except for the part where the hosts so did not deserve that."
"And I think they're probably grateful anyway. If I were ever taken over..." Jim stopped with a shudder of revulsion, and Blair couldn't help but think he felt the same way. Death had to be better than watching your own hands torture some helpless creature who refused to kill even in self defense. Static from the television crackled and then Nikita's image appeared on the screen. Everyone in the room, including the two nameless Section techs, immediately focused on the screen. Nikita's eyes quickly scanned from one side to the other, and it took Blair just a second to realize the techs had set up cameras and she was actually looking at them.
"Ms. Clark... unless there's another name you'd prefer I call you," Nikita started without introduction. Rebecca looked up, her fingers still caressing her friend.
"Ms. Clark is fine. My name is not significant."
Blair's anthropological brain went into high-gear, but Nikita merely nodded. "Forgive me for not appearing in person, but you apparently compromised several of my men. I thought, however, that we needed to talk. Will your companion survive?"
"I believe so. If I could call for help, the others might be able to help heal him."
Nikita nodded, and one of the techs stepped forward with a normal-looking cell phone. Rebecca entered a number, and then started saying something in that wheezing, clicking language of hers.
"English, please," Nikita interrupted.
Rebecca paused and then nodded. "He's badly injured, and the goa'uld have followed." Blair jumped when the other side of the conversation was suddenly routed through the speakers on the television screen.
"How many goa'uld?" a man's voice asked in a strange accent.
"Several. Humans had to kill to defend me and rescue Wayawayei, and some humans were captured, risking death." Rebecca's voice was full of dark emotion.
There was silence on the other end of the phone for several seconds. "Then we must leave."
"Yes, but Wayawayei," Rebecca's voice was almost pleading.
Nikita interrupted the conversation. "I am Nikita, the leader of the group who has rescued your two people. You are welcome to come here, and we will provide security to the best of our ability."
"You don't know what it is to try and protect us from goa'uld. We should not have come."
"My team has already successfully eliminated the goa'uld on scene."
And that caused another long silence. Blair stood up and stepped forward, suddenly having a good idea about what the problem was. "It is our way to kill those who threaten us, to protect our place, but we don't kill those who are not a threat, tell them that, and tell them they are not to blame for our actions and our choices," Blair said to Nikita. She looked at him and then her eyes darted to the side where Jurgen stood. Whatever Jurgen did to back up Blair, Nikita nodded.
"Another wishes to speak with you," Nikita said. "You can hear him now."
Blair realized they were now on speakerphone with the aliens, which was definitely ranking pretty high on the weird scale. Taking a deep breath, he tried to just pretend that this was one more tribe with their own cultural beliefs, and he just had to explain one culture to another. "We have an instinctive need to protect our own territory and families, but that is not your fault. None of you are to blame for the deaths here. The goa'uld invaded and we acted on our instincts."
Another pause told Blair he was on the right track. "Instincts you would not have acted on had we not come," the man finally said. Nikita leaned forward, her chin resting on her fist as she listened to the conversation with a small frown. "We should not have come."
"But you did, and if you leave, that's your choice, but we hold no ill feelings toward you. I only wish we could have gotten here faster before Wayawayei was hurt so badly." Blair almost choked on the name, but years of practicing tribal titles and words helped him wrap his tongue around it.
"We shall come and retrieve Wayawayei and Uhalahatha and then leave. The goa'uld will know we are no longer here and they shall no longer come to this place."
"You came here for protection," Blair said softly. He looked at Nikita, and she gave him a nod. The problem was he hadn't actually worked with the woman long enough to know for sure if she was saying yes to what he was thinking, and he really, really didn't know if he could trust her.
Rebecca spoke up now. She had put the phone to one side, and so she spoke to the room. "We do not fight, but when the goa'uld destroyed my world, seeking the chemical we use to disguise ourselves, our people fled. Five of us came here thinking that the goa'uld might avoid your planet out of fear of some awesome weapon. We thought our ship might be destroyed just trying to land, but we were willing to risk death."
"But you aren't willing to risk others dying," Blair guessed. Rebecca shook her head.
"It is not our way."
Now Jurgen spoke up, his voice soft as he watched the injured alien. "The goa'uld tortured Wayawayei for the chemical, didn't they?"
Rebecca nodded. "They can only harvest it when we appear to change form. But the xchaalaa is for hiding. To use it for aggression is a great abomination. The ones who did not escape our planet were no doubt tortured, but the goa'uld still seek the chemical, so the captured ones died without compromising their souls, just as Wayawayei would have."
"How much information have you taken from my men's minds?" Nikita interrupted the solemn quiet that had fallen on the room. Rebecca looked over at the screen with a wide-eyed panic.
"Very little... we use the xchaalaa to implant a basic thought and an image, but the host weaves most of the story around the image. We can implant an image easily, and with a deeper connection, with the aalaatchea we can share our own memories with another, but we cannot take actual thoughts. We can only access general information that is in a part of the brain that stores language. I used the xchaalaa on your team to make them think I was Rebecca Clark and I had been with them for many weeks, but each of them filled in the details in their own minds. With Robert, I shared the aalaatchea, showed him my people, the spires of Yee raised to the moonlight, the great art of Ouoluthia painted in chalks across the buildings of Ou, the blue ocean of Uele whose sands turned red with the blood of the dead as my people ran for the Stargate, desperate to escape the slaughter."
"Ma'am," Makepeace said, his eyes still on the floor. "They would rather die than hurt any of us. Wayawayei and Uhalahatha," he nodded toward Rebecca and the injured alien, "are from a particularly strict religious group who believe that to even inadvertently cause a death is a mortal sin."
"No way did they cause any deaths," Blair shook his head.
"The goa'uld," Rebecca protested, "their hosts."
Blair shook his head. "No way. Makepeace, could you have captured the building by only zatting the bad guys and tying them up?"
"Yes," Makepeace agreed. "Those weren't the orders though."
"Exactly. *You* forced us to knock the goa'uld unconscious," Blair pointed out. "We took that one step farther and killed them because that's us and that's our instinct. You didn't cause any deaths."
Rebecca looked almost hopeful at that piece of logic, but there was doubt in her face as well. Maybe Blair could reach the other alien easier. "You do see that the deaths are our responsibility, yes?" Blair asked the screen.
Nikita blinked back at him. "The phone line went dead immediately after his last comment," she said with a hint of a smile.
"I will share my memory of your words with my people, Blair," Rebecca said. "We shall consider your words when weighing our own culpability."
"You have to process it," Jim said with more than a little amusement, and then he reached out and pulled Blair back to his side. "I have a partner who does the same thing, but don't try to blame yourselves for things you didn't directly control."
"I shall share your words as well," Rebecca said. "The others were not far, they should be here soon, and then we can leave." Rebecca looked at the screen. "What is the cost of your help and our freedom?"
Nikita didn't answer right away, but she sat up with a thoughtful expression. Rebecca's eyes slid to the floor. "You have said your instincts are to protect, even at the cost of a life, so we cannot give you the xchaalaa because any deaths you create with it will weigh our souls down. Even if you torture us, we cannot give that."
"I wouldn't ask for it," Nikita said quickly. "I can't guarantee the security of the chemical, and I would feel a lot safer if there was none of this xchaalaa anywhere on Earth. The damage an enemy operative could do..." Nikita shook her head. "We might be able to make another arrangement, though. What sort of communication devices do you use?"
Rebecca tilted her head, but even now her fingers still gently caressed Wayawayei's arm. "Our communications are much more effective."
"We will trade you protection in return for two communication devices."
"That is all?" Rebecca tilted her head at Nikita who simply smiled in return.
"We killed the goa'uld because that's what we do. I have killed hundreds of people who posed a threat to others, and I will kill many more in my time. Counting the number of people I've ordered killed, I suspect your kind would consider me quite a monster, but what I've done here is no great imposition. The price you're paying is only for the rescue and for my protection until you can retreat. Three different political groups are right now seeking you because the deaths of two NID agents has alerted the remains of the UDBA, the Slovenian secret police. They are now hunting you as well. Section operatives are laying false trails to keep them busy, and members of a third group are in the basement right now."
"You will kill them?" For the first time, Rebecca's fingers had stopped their slow movements, and she had pulled back her hands in horror. The injured man now started to softly moan, but Rebecca seemed frozen.
"No," Nikita quickly answered. "They are not a threat. We will keep them in the basement until you are gone so they cannot bother you, but I have given orders to not hurt them. My operatives would allow themselves to be killed before killing them."
Rebecca nodded, and her hands went back to work on Wayawayei. "I have a communication device. The goa'uld must have taken one from Wayawayei , so you probably have it in your possession now but do not recognize it." She reached inside her waistband and pulled out a curved piece of light mauve plastic. Three openings were deeply inset into the top. "Cover this first opening and release a chemical similar to the enzyme L-Pipecolic acid oxidase and a channel will open. You control the channel by sliding your finger back and forth along the hologram that will appear. The second opening closes communication. The third opening sets the device to either recognize incoming signals or ignore them." She held out the device, and before Blair could move, Makepeace had stepped forward and taken it from her. He delivered it to the tech.
Nikita gave her an honest smile. "Thank you. We will escort your people to wherever you need to go. "
Before Rebecca could answer, a new soldier appeared in the doorway. "Ma'am, we have three incoming alien forms without disguise."
"Pull back. Keep all personnel at least fifty feet from them and leave all doors unsecured. Tighten the perimeter."
"Yes, ma'am." The soldier vanished.
"Should we..." Jim stepped up behind Blair, his hand tightening on Blair's shoulder.
Nikita only shrugged. "You're already compromised, colonel. We just need to minimize the contamination."
Blair had about a thousand questions, but then the first alien appeared at the door. Even healthy, their face had the appearance of a skull, maybe because there was no actual nose, only a dark spot and a slit opening above an upper lip that had an almost beak-like point. And the body was truly... well, if Blair wasn't trained to be non-judgmental, he might say disgusting. It just looked too much like a holocaust survivor for him to completely emotionally detach.
Jim's arm slid around to his chest and he was pulled back tightly to Jim's body, and Blair just set aside all their problems in order to seek shelter in Jim's arms right now. A second and third alien came in, and all of them ducked their heads and gave that same aura of sorrow and harmlessness that just didn't fit their almost horror-movie appearance. Surprisingly, Makepeace stepped up.
"I'm sorry. If we could have provided assistance..."
One of the aliens looked at him and tilted his head. "You are the one with whom Uhalahatha shared the aalaatchea," he said in that same accent Blair recognized from the phone. Makepeace nodded. "Then you saw the fall of our world. You know that the goa'uld would not have been stopped and your people would have only died next to mine. Your ways are foreign and... disturbing to us, but you are good people. We would not have wanted you to have left your dead next to our own."
Makepeace stepped back, but Blair could see the need and the confusion still on his face. His fingers twitched, and Blair wondered just how much memory Clark had shared. Had Makepeace become one of them? Seeing just how fundamentally changed Makepeace was, Blair suspected that the aalaatchea came closer to living a memory than just seeing it.
Blair shivered at the idea of even vicariously watching his whole world blasted to ash and his people slaughtered and fleeing while still feeling that bone-deep need to not kill. Blair had always thought of himself as being fairly peaceful, but looking at these creatures, he decided he was pretty much the same throw-back to primitive man he'd once accused Jim of being—all humans were. Hell, look at his work with crime victims... humans dehumanized and destroyed by other humans. Jim must have felt something because his second arm came around Blair and tightened. Blair reached up and wrapped his fingers around Jim's arm and leaned back into the embrace, needing the connection.
The three aliens all crouched near Wayawayei, all their hands going over his form gently, and the utter stillness gave way to soft sighs and shifting as the alien slowly started to wake up. He whispered syllables that sounded almost Native American and one of the others leaned over and cupped his cheek with an emaciated hand before answering in the same tones. And then something shimmered, and Blair was looking at Rebecca kneeling next to an old man with gray hair and sad blue eyes that were only now blinking open. A fat man with heavy jowls struggled to his feet with the help of a woman in a red head-covering and housedress, and a young man who couldn't be over 16 kept his eyes on Rebecca and the old man still laying on the ground.
"Whoa," Blair whispered.
"Yeah, Chief," Jim agreed.
"Ah, since I see no difference, I assume that you have again affected my people's memory," Nikita said through the screen.
The fat man nodded. "Our appearance is disturbing to them, and we would not wish to disturb those who have offered us more than we have any right to ask."
"You didn't ask. I normally do not have a chance to kill goa'uld, but believe me that I sometimes wish I could. If I were not needed here, I would happily join the ranks of fighters."
The man shook his head. "The nox and my people, we are... not affected by a need to defend the flesh. The goa'uld and the jaffa and the unas are ruled by that need. Your people... they confuse us."
"Enlightenment, my friend," Blair breathed softly, and the man turned toward Blair. Jim's arms tightened just a little more, but other than that, Jim didn't seem to have the reaction around these aliens that he'd had around the goa'uld.
"Enlightenment, trying to learn to let go of the material, to be one with the universe. Man, a lot of us try, but it isn't easy. Your whole race, though, that's your ethic, isn't it?" Blair could ask about a million questions at this point, but with SG1 downstairs and NID and Teal'c wandering around and this new secret police group out there, he probably didn't have time for any of them.
"It is. It is good to know that you know of enlightenment. I cannot wish you success over the goa'uld, but if you do win, I should be happy to sit with your people and discuss enlightenment," the man said.
"The team will escort you to the ship," Nikita said as Rebecca and the young man helped the injured man to his feet, but the fat one shook his head.
"As long as the goa'uld are gone, we can move much more quickly alone. We will make sure that the goa'uld shuttle records us leaving so you will have no more trouble."
Nikita smiled. "We make our own trouble, even without the goa'uld." She shrugged, and the man looked from her to Blair and back to Nikita in obvious confusion. "However, if you would rather go alone, our debt is paid. I'm sorry our world did not turn out to be the sanctuary you wanted."
"Others sought out other worlds. We will join one of those groups," he said. By that time, the old man was moving stiffly, and they started toward the door. Rebecca stopped and turned to Makepeace.
"I am sorry, Robert. I did not understand that it would hurt a warrior to see our world fall; I only meant for you to understand. I do not comprehend feeling guilt for another's behaviors." Makepeace had gone so stiff that Blair was fairly sure the man would just topple over if someone pushed him.
"Jim's the same way, man," Blair said, distracting her from Makepeace. "They want to make the world better, take out all the evil so those of us who are left can find enlightenment, and when they can't, man, guilt-city."
The fat man considered Blair with a frown as the woman in the house dress and the young man helped the old man out the door. "Your people are unique," he finally announced. Rebecca reached out, one hand brushing against Makepeace's chest before she turned and followed the fat man out the door. Blair breathed a sigh of relief and looked around. Knudsen looked shell-shocked, Jurgen was staring back at him with that same academic curiosity he always had, and Clare was just blinking as if her brain wasn't processing quite quick enough to keep up.
For long minutes, the room was still, even the techs unmoving as someone tracked the aliens' movements. Finally, Nikita's voice interrupted the silence. "They've entered the sewers and are heading north. Two teams will follow at a distance, but they don't have any company from the NID or the UDBA."
"So, is the mission objective a success?" Jim asked.
"Nearly," Nikita said and then the screen went blank. Blair looked up at Jim with a questioning expression.
"She's coming down," Jim said as he turned toward the door, obviously waiting for Nikita to come through.
Great. Aliens, asshole O'Neill, and now Nikita in person. Blair was so looking forward to repressing this whole damn day.
Jim watched Nikita come through the dining room door with more than a little concern. She smelled of aggression, and he tightened his grip on Blair. Usually Blair would have been objecting with a sharp elbow to Jim's side by now, but instead he was holding onto Jim's arm and pressing back in a way that Jim's body couldn't completely ignore. Glancing at Makepeace, Jim could see the fear in the soldier. He'd been seriously compromised, and he knew it. Jim just had no idea how he or Blair would react if Nikita decided to cancel Makepeace here and now. From the carefully neutral expression, Jim could see that Makepeace had already accepted the possibility and didn't plan to fight.
Nikita gave the techs a signal and they packed the equipment with military precision and speed that any commander would have envied in a tech crew.
Jurgen stepped forward, offering his hand, and when Nikita raised her own, he brought it to his lips. "Nikita, how lovely," he offered, ignoring the well-armed goons that took position on either side of the door after she entered.
"Karl," she said in an honestly warm tone of voice. "Your observations of the goa'uld were invaluable, and I look forward to hearing your conclusions on this new species."
"No way are they enemies to profile," Blair almost snapped, and Jim flinched. Blair could mouth off to O'Neill all he wanted, but Nikita wasn't military, and her behavior wasn't dictated by the military code of conduct, not that O'Neill was particularly good at following it, but at least Jim could trust the man to not murder them.
"Blair," he warned softly.
"Dr. Sandburg," Nikita said as she turned her back on Jurgen and focused on him. "We profile both our friends and our enemies. After all, our friends often do us the most damage, even if it is inadvertent. For example, who knows how much damage Captain Makepeace has sustained by being forced to live memories through an alien perspective?"
Blair started to say something, and Jim tightened his hold until it had to hurt. Blair gave him a death glare, but at least he fell silent. And Makepeace wasn't saying anything.
"Our profilers will need to work with you again, Robert," Nikita suggested as casually as if she had been suggesting tea, but Jim remembered full well what those 'profilers' on base did.
"Yes, ma'am," Makepeace said, his gaze still firmly focused on the far wall.
"But we will give you time to adjust to your new memories before attempting a second profile. The R&R section has orders to house you for two weeks, after which you will be reevaluated for active duty."
Makepeace's gaze flickered, and he gave a little frown that Jim suspected had more to do with surprise than anything else. "Yes, ma'am."
"And if you don't think he can go back on active duty?" Blair demanded, completely ignoring Jim's desperate hold on him, but then Blair rarely listened when he didn't want to.
Nikita held up her hand to stop Jim from answering. "He is a soldier who has signed on to protect the interests of peace. If he can no longer serve that, I will give him a choice. He can either take a quick cancellation, and he will feel no pain or he can serve as the point on a mission with no exit protocol. There are many areas of the world, areas which are involved in developing nuclear and biological weapons. Some of these areas are so secretive and remote that any operative who carries communication equipment in will eventually be caught and killed, but that doesn't mean we can afford to ignore the threat."
"I would rather die on mission, ma'am," Makepeace said calmly, but Jim could smell the tendrils of panic from him. Of course, the smell was nearly overwhelmed by the panic and anger he could smell from Blair.
Nikita nodded. "I made the same choice myself years ago, and I managed to survive, so I thought you might prefer a chance to prove your skills or, at the very least, give your death purpose. I do have a question for you, captain. What is your impression of the NID forces on the ground?"
"Better informed than I had expected based on briefings, ma'am. I killed one as did Bruhn. The two who retreated seemed unusually good at evading Knudsen and Jurgen."
"And Clark," Nikita mused. "Could the alien have informed them of your location in order to prevent bloodshed?" No one answered, and Nikita turned and stared right at Blair. Jim could feel the man stiffen in his arms. "What's your opinion, Dr. Sandburg?"
"No way," Blair shook his head slowly at first, but then his body started generating that manic energy of his. "No fucking way. Helping either side would be an action that led to one side or the other winning, which would mean abetting a killing either way. They felt guilty for not understanding that the goa'uld would follow, so no way would they actually take action in a conflict."
"I concur." Nikita pulled out her sidearm and fired twice. Clair Tobias' body jerked, her arms splaying out to the sides as a large portion of her brains splattered against the wall. Jim instinctively thrust Blair behind his body, his muscles almost aching with a need to grab his own weapon, but the two goons at the door had their weapons already raised. Jurgen made a strangled noise of pain and took one step toward Tobias' fallen body. Only Knudsen looked largely uninterested as he sidestepped to avoid a quickly spreading pool of blood.
"Karl, she was feeding information to the NID. Either you knew and did nothing..." Jurgen shook his head, and Jim tightened his hold on Blair and backed up a step in case of another death. "Accepting that, then you allowed a double agent to use intimacy to cloud your judgment. I may tolerate a certain flexibility that my predecessor did not, but this behavior has consequences. Put him on the transport under guard," Nikita said as she stepped to the side. One of the goons stepped forward and grabbed Jurgen by the arm. Jurgen followed limply, his eyes focused on Tobias' body until he was pulled from the room.
Jim could feel the tremors of shock start running through Blair's body, and he turned to his partner. It took both his hands on Blair's arms to guide the man to a chair and get him to sit. Kneeling down in front of Blair, Jim ignored the rest of the room.
"Chief, come on, just mentally put this aside for another time. When we get home, you can burn sage and play that god-awful drum music and process until your hair falls out," Jim promised desperately. He couldn't have Nikita decide that Blair was too unstable for an operative. He couldn't. He'd die with Blair before he'd leave Blair's body laying in an obscene sprawl next to Tobias. "Come on, Chief, just breathe."
"Is he alright?" Nikita asked, and Jim barely bit off his own sarcastic response.
"He'll be fine, ma'am," he said as he wrapped his arms around Blair. Slowly, Blair's arms came up and slid around Jim's waist, holding on desperately as shivers shook Blair's frame.
"Dr. Sandburg is not particularly well-suited to violence, but he needed to understand the consequences of making a poor decision. I have no doubt that Ms. Tobias believed the NID were better suited to fight the alien incursion, but Section does not accept divided loyalty."
Jim just nodded as he ran his hand in circles on Blair's back, holding him just as tightly as he had held Blair when he'd been drugged and confused. Only this time, Jim didn't get to promise him that he would wake and find out it had all been a dream, a hallucination.
"Makepeace, Bruhn, you may wait at the transport," Nikita said as she dismissed the last two living members of the team. Jim could feel himself stiffen, and Blair's hand fisted his shirt.
"I thought we might speak," Nikita said as she sat in the chair next to Blair. Blair's breathing evened out and he let go of Jim's shirt, silently pushing against Jim's shoulder. Obeying, Jim stood up and left a red-faced and swollen-eyed Sandburg to face Nikita. All Jim could do was leave his hand on his guide's shoulder and mentally plan contingencies to back up whatever came out of Blair's mouth. If he took Nikita out first, the guard would shoot him in the back. Jim didn't think Blair had much of a chance with the guard, but he had even less chance with Nikita. Jim eased to the side so that his body would shield Blair from the guard if this turned ugly.
"You..." Blair swallowed. "You killed her."
"It could be argued that she committed suicide by spying against Section," Nikita argued calmly. "Would you ever turn information on me over to the NID or even SG1?"
Blair was shaking his head before Nikita had even finished. "No way, but that doesn't give you the right."
"No, it doesn't. Girard, wait outside, please." The guard silently retreated, and Jim could feel the itching of danger between his shoulder blades lessen. He couldn't remember the last time they'd been screwed this badly... not unless he went all the way back to the last time Section had taken them.
Nikita sighed and shifted in her chair until she got more comfortable. "Section does dirty things, and I try to keep too much power from gathering because that's not safe, but we are necessary. We are necessary and if our recruits think they can get away with betraying us, the consequences are such that a little abuse of power is excusable."
"The ends justify the means?" Blair almost yelled the words, and then he lost his breath as panic took a hold again. Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulder, and Nikita just waited. "Oh man, tyrants have always used that excuse. It's not excuse. You are so headed for hell, lady."
"I very well may be. I try to walk a line, but I know that in the long run I am unlikely to succeed. However, the organization will survive. And as long as we have our reputation and good people like Jurgen and Makepeace can make it to the top with some ethics intact, I think we will continue to do good work."
"Makepeace, you aren't going to cancel him?" Blair looked over in confusion, and Jim could admit he was a little confused himself, he just wasn't as likely to question Nikita about anything, not after seeing her commit cold-blooded murder.
Nikita considered that question for several seconds. "I don't want to. If his psyche is fragmented or too damaged, I may have to, but I will offer him a mission that will make his death worthwhile if it comes down to that. However, that is not what I wished to discuss. As I said before, you have received certain benefits from being under our protection. We have now received certain benefits from your assistance."
"Killing Alex is so not going down as a good think for your side," Blair snorted.
"Then, ignoring that, we prevented your dissertation from being published. We found you a research partner whose work allowed you to take a job with the police department."
"You manipulated our lives," Blair growled.
"Yes, we did," Nikita agreed amicably enough.
Jim's nose was starting to itch with the smell of death that was sinking into the carpet, and in the distance, he could hear O'Neill complaining loudly in the basement. Bruhn had retreated, locking SG1 in the basement. "What's the point of this conversation?" Jim asked as civilly as he could given the circumstances.
"You have earned a choice. We can continue as we have been: you remain on call, we remain vigilant in your protection."
"Or we can sever our relationship. Keep in mind that within the community, it will be noticed that Section operatives no longer maintain observation in Cascade. Others may try to recruit you."
"Recruit? Like you did? At gunpoint?" Blair demanded.
"Possibly," Nikita nodded. "We also ended one very poorly designed attack against Naomi Sandburg, so the recruitment may take more creative forms."
"So, stay in your employ or risk having everyone in the covert ops community out to get Jim?" Blair checked. "Manipulative doesn't even cover that."
"I doubt they want Jim as much as you, Dr. Sandburg."
"Me?" Blair squeaked the word, and Jim took a step forward before he could stop himself. He found himself facing the end of Nikita's weapon.
"Yes, you," she informed them as she slowly lowered her weapon while still giving every impression that she would shoot Jim in a second if he did that again. Her hand and the sidearm ended up resting in her lap, the end still pointed at Jim. "You informed Madeline that she had fundamentally misunderstood the function of guides," Nikita told Blair. "She believed you. Section now has dozens of Sentinels on staff and dozens of researchers, all of whom are discovering that your theories of Sentinels are right and the rest of the world, possibly the rest of the universe, is wrong. And Colonel Ellison still outperforms even our best operatives trained with the new systems which we are developing as a result of your dissertation."
"My dissertation? Shit. You're training an army of them." Blair's voice had lost all emotion, and that worried Jim more than anything else.
"Sentinels are never going to be super soldiers," Jim warned Nikita.
"No, but their usefulness on intelligence gathering and rescue missions has been greatly underestimated, and you are so remarkable that the NID and UDBA both took note. Given that your medical records are easily obtained within certain circles, you're clearly not medically different from any other Sentinel. The difference would appear to be Dr. Sandburg."
"I zoned," Jim protested, "that's not particularly remarkable."
"After tracking an impossible target through the rain without your guide. And in close proximity to goa'uld, you maintained control."
"God, you and O'Neill. Why do you talk like Jim needs a babysitter? Man, a guide is for when the unexpected happens or when he needs help. I am so not a babysitter, and Jim so does not need me to function." Blair crossed his arms.
"Exactly." Nikita looked smug. "You two have upended the entire intelligence community, and the focus will be on Dr. Sandburg. More significantly, the Sentinel department predicts that Colonel Ellison will be even more focused and effective after you two have bonded, and that level of control and effectiveness will be unparalleled in the history of Sentinels."
Jim could feel the heat gathering under his hand as Blair blushed, and he found an urge to pull his hand away. He needed Nikita to see them as a united front, even if he never would have the bond he wanted with Blair.
"I don't... I mean..." Blair just stopped.
Nikita nodded. "Profiling predicts that each of you wants the bond but is unwilling to push the topic with the other. Of course, profiling has been spectacularly wrong before when it comes to you two."
"So you want us to give you a lifelong commitment to Section right now?" Jim checked.
Nikita smiled and stood up. "Not even close, colonel. The President requested that Stargate Command have a chance to impress you with their program before you decided."
"What?" Jim frowned at the woman.
"As Dr. Sandburg said, I do constantly run the risk of hell, and so lately I have been trying to maintain a more diplomatic approach to other world powers."
"By giving us away?" Blair demanded. "Would you have given us to the Russians if they asked?!" Jim could hear the edge of hysteria.
"After we had to meet with the Russian President in his bedroom to discuss an issue of international significance, I doubt he would ask," Nikita offered with an unctuous cheerfulness that was really starting to annoy Jim. "However, if the French President had an operation which crossed ours and he found out about Girard or others, I might have made the offer. However, I only agreed to give the Americans access. In a week, you are to be back in your apartment, and then we can discuss whether you want Section's protection, the protection of the American government, or if you choose to operate outside any system."
Jim focused on Nikita. "What does the profiling department say about our chances of surviving as independents?" Jim asked.
Nikita looked at him and then holstered her weapon as she stood up. "They say you have less than a five percent chance of making it. Your best odds would be to run for undeveloped areas such as Peru before Section withdraws protection, in which case you have a nearly ten percent chance of surviving. Section will not chase down your tracking signals, and if you have them surgically removed, we will not show up at the hospital when the security of the chip is breeched. If you run now, I will simply take that as your decision to sever our ties.
However, the American President is under the impression that his flagship team will have at least five days to try and convince you to take employment with them. If you decide to run, I would actually recommend that you take a chance to visit a few worlds. P5C-768, a world called Eudora has an agrarian society that would welcome two strong hands to try and rebuild after a natural disaster. If I ever have a chance to leave my office, I've often considered requesting that the President allow me to retire there."
Jim could smell the truthfulness on her as she nodded her head in their direction and then headed for the door. "You'll be taking transportation with SG1. I'll see you at the loft in a week. If you aren't there, I will determine if it is by your choice and either retrieve you from the President or leave you to your new job. No hidden agenda here," she said, and Jim could see a weariness in her he'd never seen before. With a final nod she was gone, and Jim was left with a shell-shocked guide and a dead body. Oh yeah, and three members of SG1 locked in the basement.
"Well, shit," Blair breathed.
"That'd be one word, Chief. Come on," Jim pulled Blair up and herded him toward the door, trying to stay between Blair and the body.
"Man, the secret-spy industry wants me to train their Sentinels because they've fucked them all up," Blair summarized softly.
Jim snorted. "Two weeks of putting up with your dirty socks, and the Sentinels will be willing to do anything to get you to follow a few simple house rules," Jim said as he tugged Blair toward the basement door.
"We have to choose. Man, I like choosing even less than I like being choiceless. This is... this sucks."
"Big time, Chief," Jim agreed as he kept on moving. He turned the key in the basement door and opened it quickly, stepping back to avoid attack. Sure enough, Jack came bolting out the door and just about rebounced off the wall on the far side of the hall when he didn't find anyone in his way.
Jim held his hands up in surrender. "The house is clear, colonel," Jim offered.
"Yeah, sure, you don't mind if we check, do you?" he asked. Jim just stepped to the side as first Carter and then Daniel followed.
"Aw, crap." Jack was standing at the open door to the dining room, and Jim could hear Blair's heartbeat start speeding again. "Well, I guess that explains the gunshots."
Carter was next to Jack in the door. "Sir, I'm not sure, but that looks like..."
"Clare Tobias," Daniel finished as he stood standing behind the other two.
Jack turned and looked at his other two teammates. "Ya think maybe we're making a nice target of ourselves here? Carter, check upstairs for weapons or hostiles. Danny, you and I have ground floor. So, Ellison," Jack turned and looked at them. "Do you plan to share the weaponry or wait until Teal'c shows up and zats your ass?"
"I need a new word, something more of a pain in the ass than a hemorrhoid," Blair complained. "It's been a bad day, and now you're threatening us. I've been threatened way more than I really like in one day. My annoyance cup runneth over."
"It looks like Tobias' runneth more," Jack pointed out. "So, I'm just wondering what's going on here."
"Fuck." Blair thunked his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. For a second, Jim let his hand rest on Blair's shoulder.
"Our boss seems to have made a deal with your boss," Jim started as he pulled the strap of the P-90 over his head and offered it to O'Neill.
"George? Oh man, the President got in on this one. I have no idea who George is," Blair said without bothering to open his eyes, and now Jack frowned.
Blair opened his eyes and pushed himself off the wall. "Apparently you guys have five days to impress us with how necessary your work is in an effort to recruit us."
"Recruit you?" Jack snorted. "I hate to break it to you, Squirt, but you wouldn't pass the physical."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I don't want to pass the physical. I don't want to be recruited. However, as much as I refuse to follow orders, some orders get followed." Blair started for the front door, but he stopped a half step before the dining room door, which still hung open. Jim stepped in front of Blair and pulled the door closed.
"She was still working for the NID," Jim answered the question in Jack's eyes. "Our boss decided to take a personal interest in her retirement."
Blair gave a laugh that turned into a half-sob, and Jim slipped his arm around Blair's shoulders and guided him past a now-silent Jack and Daniel. Jim headed out into the cool dusk night. The steps were wet, but Blair sat anyway, his breathing uneven as the last drizzle caught on his curls and made a maze of waterdrops.
Jim sat next to him, his arm around Blair's shoulders. Wordlessly, Blair leaned into him. Jim wished he had some words, some assurances, but he didn't. Section was the devil they knew, a devil that would allow them to keep some part of their life in Cascade. Stargate Command was the devil they didn't, and even if they were good people, the military implied military politics and control. And going independent? It would mean losing all contact with family and friends, and Jim didn't have a lot of illusions. The world was small, and someone would eventually find them. If all people wanted was a Sentinel, there were other Sentinels in the world, but apparently there was only one Blair Sandburg.
Jim wondered what his life would have been like if O'Neill had chosen him and the military with their limited knowledge of Sentinels had trained his senses into appearing. Would he have fallen for the lie, and lived the rest of his live believing that he couldn't survive without a keeper? Blair had given him so much more than Jim could ever repay, and the man didn't even understand that.
The shoulders under his arm started to shake, and Jim pulled Blair closer. Turning, Blair buried his face in Jim's chest and started to cry. Sometimes Jim wished he could let things go as easily, but the fact is he worried far too much about what others might say if he did. The sun was fading fast, and Blair was still crying when Teal'c appeared out of the shadows.
Jim made eye contact and jerked his head toward the door to let Teal'c know they were inside. For a second, Teal'c hesitated, and Jim could only hope the man wouldn't pull a weapon and order them up. Blair had taken about as many orders as he could without breaking today. Instead Teal'c inclined his head and then climbed the stairs, passing Jim and Blair before he went inside.
"Colonel, colonel," the general said, greeting both him and Jack as they got off the transport truck. The man was older and almost completely bald, but even with the extra weight he had picked up, Jim could tell he still moved like a soldier. Jim was willing to bet this man had served his time in the field and still knew which end of a rifle to clean. Jim stayed close to the back of the truck as Jack's team tumbled off, unsteady on their feet after the long ride. Blair was the last off.
"Oh man, I have to use a bathroom, now!" Blair snapped as soon as his feet hit ground. The general's eyebrows went up.
"There's one in the guard station," he offered as he pointed, and Blair just about took off running. A guard stiffened, and Jim took a step toward him, but then either the general or O'Neill must have signaled him because he stood down and allowed Blair to go crashing through the narrow door.
"Long ride?" the general asked.
"Yes, sir, longer for having to put up with these two," O'Neill offered. "I'm sorry, did I say that out loud?" he then asked sweetly when the general gave him an unhappy expression.
"Colonel Ellison, I apologize for Colonel O'Neill. He's had a bad week."
"That's fine, sir," Jim answered, only half his attention focused on them as he listed to Blair. The man was cursing softly. "Sandburg isn't feeling well, he may be in there a while."
The general had a really confused expression on his face now. "I'm sure the young man will be fine. I promise you're both safe here, son."
Jim listened to Blair groan in pain as O'Neill and the general traded looks. Blair's cursing got more colorful as his guts finally gave and Jim could smell the diarrhea even from fifty yards away. Sometimes being a Sentinel had disadvantages. A soldier came trotting over double-time.
"Sir," he offered with a sharp salute.
The general returned his salute. "Airman?"
"The guest appears to be sick, sir. Should I call Dr. Frasier?"
Jim listened to Blair softly muttering. "He's upset by the... events of the day. He just needs some time to unwind, sir," Jim suggested. O'Neill gave him a strange look. "And possibly more fiber in his diet."
"Visitors need a check up anyway. Call for the doctor," the general told the airman who gave another salute and turned to double time back to the guard house. "I'm General George Hammond. The President tells me I have a few days to assess your skills and reconsider my position on Sentinels," the general offered a smile.
"Detective James Ellison," Jim said firmly. Hammond and O'Neill exchanged another look.
"Maybe I should check on Blair," Daniel said as he edged toward the guard house.
"I wouldn't without a mask and a can of air freshener," Jim said as he listened to another round of pained groans. Maybe Blair really did need some medical attention.
"Oh." Daniel stopped.
"Oh for cryin' out loud. He's an adult, let him catch up when he's ready," Jack said as he started for the large entrance to the mountain.
"Colonel!" General Hammond called out sharply, and Jim frowned at the subtext between them. O'Neill shrugged as though fully aware of why Hammond was upset and fully not caring.
"Sir, the cafeteria always runs out of green Jell-O first. You know I can't stand the blue," Jack said without stopping. Hammond looked at O'Neill for a second.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Jack," Hammond said as he held out a hand inviting Jim to follow O'Neill's retreating back.
"Never, sir, you know that," O'Neill replied cheerfully. Jim couldn't ever remember having such a casual relationship with his superiors when he was in the service. Simon was the first boss who hadn't inspired secret fantasies about short-sheeting.
"I should let Blair know we're heading down," Jim said as they neared the large cavernous entrance to the mountain.
"Let Danny. He's used to strange and stinky rituals. Not that long ago, I had to rescue him from an Unas cave with a bunch of escapees from the Land of the Lost. There was no word for bathtub in their language. And Danny didn't smell so good himself. Do you remember those lizard guys from Land of the Lost?" O'Neill asked as they headed into the shadow of the entrance.
"The sleestak?" Jim asked. Daniel looked at them for a second and then turned to head for the guard's room where Blair was now creatively cursing three generations of Nikita's family.
"That's it. Carter, why don't you ever know the important stuff like that?" O'Neill asked as they stopped at a guard station.
"I don't know, sir, too much physics homework maybe," she answered as a guard quickly frisked Jim and then offered a visitor's pass. "Or maybe because a show with that implausible of a premise wouldn't have interested me."
"That's what's wrong with you Carter. It's entertainment. You really need to get out more."
"Yes, sir," she answered while making it sound like she was completely disregarding everything he said. Jim watched the changed interplay wondering which was the real O'Neill and which was the act. He was clearly far more relaxed and even playful now, and that sudden change left Jim feeling a little unsettled.
"Sir," a woman hurried up to them. She was tiny with short brown hair and a white doctor's coat, and two men followed after her. "I hear we have a patient."
"Dr. Frasier, this is Colonel Ellison. Colonel Ellison, this is our base doctor." The general turned to her. "Dr. Sandburg is in the guard's station. He's Sentinel Ellison's companion, and he appears to be ill."
"Sir," Jim interrupted. "I don't plan on reactivating my commission, so I think Detective Ellison is a more appropriate title, and the term I use for Blair is 'guide'. Dr. Frasier, nice to meet you. Blair's been under a lot of stress recently, and he seems to be having some intestinal distress."
"Is this normal? Does he have a history of gastrointestinal distress?"
"No, but then he doesn't normally see a woman murdered a few feet away or get traded from one secret agency to another like a baseball card, so his life isn't exactly normal right now," Jim pointed out as he crossed his arms. The woman glanced over at the general before focusing on Jim.
"If you want to wait here, I'll check on him," she offered.
"No can do, doc. Jell-O waits for no man or woman. Sandburg is on his own," O'Neill said cheerfully as he went through a turnstile and headed for the elevators.
"General," the doctor said, and Jim could hear the stress tones in her voice.
"Yes, doctor, I am aware that Jack is pushing the bounds of good manners here. When you can, bring Sandburg down. We're going to debrief in the briefing room and then meet you in the infirmary for a standard set of tests for Ellison." Dr. Frasier looked from one to the other for a second, looking like she might argue the point.
"Yes, sir," she finally said as she hurried toward the bathroom with her two assistants following.
"So, green or red?" O'Neill asked as they all now headed for the elevators. An airman held them open for the group.
"Green or red?" Jim looked at the elevator panel in surprise. There were a lot more levels than he had expected.
"Red, I suppose," Jim answered absent-mindedly. He could hear Blair telling the doctor where she could put her stretcher because he would be just fine once all his guts fell out. Daniel was playing peacemaker as the doc got more and more frustrated.
"Well, at least I won't have more competition for the green," O'Neill shrugged.
"Col—excuse me, Detective Ellison," Hammond corrected himself, and Jim had the pleasure of glaring at a general. "I know some in the Navy and CIA use the term 'guide' to avoid the sexual connotation of 'companion.' Where did you pick up the term?"
"Lee Bracket. Old CIA operative who went rogue," Jim said, most of his mind busy on cataloguing a dizzying range of sounds. Hundreds of machines were all going at once, and something deep in the mountain made the entire complex feel like a bees' hive against his skin. "He tried to blackmail us with stolen Ebola to force me steal a prototype airplane."
"Ah, you've had an interesting career. I took some time to read your file, but while I saw you had arrested Mr. Bracket, I admit that I didn't see any report of Ebola," Hammond said in a friendly tone, but Jim could hear the stress tones just under the surface. The sound of Blair's voice had faded, and Jim could barely hear it bouncing off the sides of the elevator shaft.
"I'm sure one of the alphabet soup agencies covered it up," Jim answered shortly.
"So, do you get blackmailed and strong-armed much?" O'Neill asked.
"We haven't had much blackmail recently," Jim said as he wondered how much of that was Section's doing. Certainly, his secret didn't seem to be a very well-kept secret. "I don't think Sandburg's been kidnapped in at least two years, and I've gone a year and a half."
"I can't imagine why. I'd think people would be lined up to spend time with that annoying little shit," O'Neill muttered quietly, so quietly that only Jim heard.
Jim turned to look at the colonel. "Do you mean Sandburg?"
O'Neill just looked at for a minute, and then he nodded. "Yeah. He's an annoying little shit."
Jim shrugged. "You're not a joy yourself, O'Neill." Teal'c's eyebrow went up.
"Colonel, is there a problem?" General Hammond asked as the elevator started to slow.
"No, sir. No problem at all except Sandburg's attitude. Dr. Sandburg is an annoying pain in the nikta."
Jim didn't need a translation of nikta to get the general idea. "With all due respect, colonel, you were disrespectful, rude, and threatening."
"You broke into my hotel room."
"Under orders," Jim reminded the man. "Personally, I would be just as happy to never see you again."
"Colonel," General Hammond cut O'Neill off. "Both colonels, can we please have a little decorum?"
"Decorum? Sir, you should hear what the shrimp called me," O'Neill protested.
"I believe, Colonel O'Neill, that Dr. Sandburg only spoke in defense of Colonel Ellison," Teal'c suggested calmly.
"Detective Ellison," Jim corrected the man.
The general held up his hand. "I understand that everyone got off on the wrong foot. I'm hoping we can make some more favorable impressions in the next couple of days. Detective Ellison, your record in Cascade is impressive. How often does Dr. Sandburg work with you?"
"If you want to know if I need a babysitter, then ask," Jim said as he crossed his arms. Nikita could order him to spend five days here, but he was starting to think he preferred her overt power plays to this constantly shifting conversation where he could feel the undercurrent of anticipation and deceit.
Hammond sighed and then exchanged a knowing glance with O'Neill, the same sort Jim often exchanged with Simon. "Son, I would like to know if your skills are as good as I have been led to believe, and if they are, I would like a chance to offer you a job. If you aren't a hundred percent as good as promised, your senses and instincts will be far more of a liability off-world than an asset. I would just like a chance to decide that for myself."
The doors to the elevator opened, and Jim just stared at the general for a second. Idiotic command structure would have Hammond get out of the elevator first, and Jim wished Blair was here to ignore all the protocols and storm out of the elevator, leaving Jim and everyone else to follow. Instead Jim stood with his arms crossed as he waited for Hammond to make a move.
Finally, the man nodded and got off, O'Neill on his six, and Jim followed. His hearing was oddly distorted, pulled out into long tubes of sound defined by the various corridors of the underground labyrinth. Jim stopped so suddenly that Carter actually ran into his back.
"Sorry, sir," she quickly offered, but Jim ignored her.
"I can hear a woman scream two levels up, but I can smell your anticipation, General Hammond. Is this one of your tests?"
Hammond stopped and turned around. "It is," he said without apology.
Jim stared at him for a second, struggling to avoid saying something that would just make this whole situation worse. Finally, he just started walking, passing O'Neill and Hammond. "Then you need to get a better recording. I can hear the background static on that tape," he commented. Jim didn't bother watching them for a reaction, he knew what it would look like. They'd be shocked and impressed and O'Neill might start to do some recalculating of his position, but none of that changed the fact that Jim didn't want to be here.
"We're off to the left next turn," O'Neill offered as they came to an intersection. An armed airman watched with some concern, but Jim ignored him.
"Another test?" Jim asked as he glanced that direction.
"No, just our destination," O'Neill commented, and Jim nodded tightly as he smelled the truth on the man.
"Fine, but my bosses will come for us in about a week. I really wouldn't get in these people's way, colonel, you saw what happened with Tobias," Jim said as he turned left at the intersection. This area wasn't well used, and only the smell of regulation bedding interrupted metal, metal and more metal. He knew what holding cells smelled like.
"Detective Ellison!" Hammond shouted, and Jim realized that he had distantly heard but ignored the man's first two calls. He turned and Hammond was frowning. "What exactly do you think is waiting for you?" Hammond asked.
Jim crossed his arms and considered the general. Teal'c and Carter had vanished, but O'Neill stood next to the general, the two of them providing a united front with the armed airman behind them. Leaning against the wall, Jim considered just how confrontational he wanted this to get.
"Look, I can smell a holding cell as well as the next Sentinel, but I'm tired. I've had a hard week, and lost someone I considered a teammate even if I didn't particularly like her, someone who I should have spotted spying for the NID. So, if you want to lock me up, I'm just going to take the chance to catch up on my sleep. When Sandburg's guts stop trying to fall out, throw him in with me, and then you can explain to our bosses why we don't show up in a week. I'd update my life insurance if I were you."
"Colonel, I never intended to hold you against your will," General Hammond looked almost alarmed now, and Jim found that ironic because he didn't have the energy to fight his way out of a paper sack, so Hammond wasn't exactly in danger.
"Shit," O'Neill cursed, and Hammond spared him a quick look. "We're not the NID. Yes, those are holding rooms, but I've been locked down often enough to know they're not that uncomfortable. We just wanted you somewhere secure when you found out about Sandburg."
"Found out? About Sandburg?" Jim pushed off from the wall and took a step forward. O'Neill and Hammond both edged to the side of the corridor, and now Jim could see the airman had a tranquilizer gun. Jim reached out with his hearing, focusing on the last area where he had heard Blair, and he could still hear Blair, complaining just as loudly as ever as the doctor talked to him about fluids and insisted he needed an IV, and it didn't sound like he was in any physical danger. Why would they want him locked up before they—
Jim glared at the general. "You had one of the airmen give him something," Jim said, his jaw aching as he tried to control a good fury that threatened to come erupting right out his fists.
"Son, he's not in any danger. Sentinels are sometimes a little overly emotional, and on a mission, an injured man is a big enough liability without having a second team member emotionally disabled by the injury."
Jim glared for one more second, and then he headed for the sound of Blair's voice. O'Neill and Hammond moved, but the airman held his ground and brought the tranquilizer gun up. Jim could smell the distress; this wasn't a battle hardened soldier. "If you fire that, I *will* have a bad reaction to the chemicals, and then you're going to have to face my partner," Jim told the airman. "If you think I look like a hardass, wait until my partner rips you apart." Jim wasn't even exaggerating. If Blair found out they were playing these games, the man was going to rip someone a new asshole.
"Stand down," Hammond ordered, and the airman quickly and gratefully moved to the side of the corridor. Jim walked to the junction they had just passed and then spent thirty seconds quickly tracing the echoes and tunnels until he found the one that led to Sandburg. Turning right, he followed one corridor and then angled off to another, ignoring his three shadows as he came to a more crowded area of the base.
He could hear the doctor with the accent clearly now, and from the sounds of it, Blair was still giving her a hard time and getting just as hard of a time right back.
"I'll order them to get the restraints and then you can spend the next five days with the Guiding Light blasting from every television, understand?" she demanded.
"No way. You might be willing to torture me, but that is not only cruel, but you'd have to hear it, too," Blair pointed out.
"I have another office."
"As a doctor, you ethically can't give me anything that I turn down after getting full and completely disclosure. No way do I want any chemicals going through me. I just need to drink some water."
"You had a major gastrointestinal episode. You are not going to 'drink some water' and walk out of here. You'll either lie down like a good little soldier, or I'll give you an injury that's worthy of staying in bed." The doctor sounded about ready to inflict that injury as Jim came through the infirmary door. Blair was sitting up in bed in his shirt and a pair of scrubs for pants.
"Hey, Chief, are you giving the doctor a hard time?" Jim asked. Dr. Frasier looked momentarily stunned to see him, and she retreated to the far side of the bed.
"You could say that. He's about tied with O'Neill for worst patient right now," she agreed.
"Listen, western medicine is not the end-all be-all. My body is just off balance, and meditation and some fresh air will do a lot more good than that crap," Blair said as he gestured toward the IV line stuck in his arm. Jim was just grateful he hadn't pulled it out yet.
"Let her give you something, Chief, it turns out your stomach problems aren't exactly stress related," Jim said as he came to the edge of the bed and sat down. His hand rested on Blair's arm just below the IV line, and Blair frowned at him in confusion. Jim shrugged. "Turns out that O'Neill over there slipped you something nasty in order to see how bat-shit I would go when my guide got sick."
Jim leaned back and watched as the incredulity, the shock, the fear all passed through Blair's face, and then his mood settled on just pure fury. Yeah, the guys at the station had joked about there being a danger zone around him when he was in a bad mood, but no one could clear out the bullpen faster than a furious Sandburg.
"Sir?" Dr. Frasier asked, and she was sounding nearly as pissed.
"Calm down, Frasier. You know you like poking at the new guys anyway. We just gave you an extra reason to poke at Sandburg. Besides, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy." Jack leaned against the doorframe, but Jim could see the stiff tension in his body. O'Neill was still playing a part.
"You asshole. You fucking know that this has been the week from hell, and you know Jim has instinctive needs, and so you just decide to poke them for fucking fun?" Blair demanded.
"Hey, we needed to know if he could handle it," O'Neill shrugged. General Hammond had the good sense to move to the side, and Jim could see the anger really building now.
"Do you kick pregnant women, too? Hey, I know, take a diabetic's medicine away and watch the good times roll. I hear a diabetic coma is real fun."
"Diabetics aren't eligible for combat missions," O'Neill pointed out, and that was not the tactic to take with Blair.
"We don't fucking want a combat mission. We're here because we were ordered to play nice for five days, which is five days too fucking long. Seriously. Get out," Blair snapped.
"Colonel, I think you should leave," Dr. Frasier suggested as she watched the monitors. Jim wasn't too concerned; he'd seen Blair's blood pressure go a whole lot higher. Blair didn't pop often, but when he did, it was a sight to see. Sometimes Jim still fantasized about what Blair might have done to that mob boss who had tried to kill Brother Marcus. The only reason he had stopped Blair from beating the shit out of the man was because Blair would have hated himself the next day. Hell, legally he could have gotten Blair off easy after how they'd all been terrorized in that monastery.
"Oh for cryin' out loud. It was just some laxative."
"That you used to try and drive Jim into an instinctive rage. You walking hemorrhoid." Before Jim could catch him, Blair had grabbed a bedpan and flung it with all his strength at O'Neill. O'Neill darted out of the bedpan's way, but obviously had not anticipated the fact that it had been used. An arc of brown slime flew through the air and caught O'Neill across his stomach, splattering everywhere. Everyone was still frozen in shock when Blair sent his soiled pants and then the bedside phone following after. O'Neill ended up ducking out of the room and taking refuge in the hallway.
"Okay, that's quite enough of that. One more anything out of you and you really will be restrained," Dr. Frasier said as she stood up and blocked Blair's path to the door and physically yanked a roll of toilet paper out of his hand. Of all the things Blair had thrown, Jim found it a little amusing that Frasier had stopped the toilet paper and not anything else. Blair opened his mouth, but Frasier just jumped in there first. "And I'll leave that mess on the wall and floor of MY infirmary to dry just so you can scrub it clean later if you say so much as one word."
"Chief," Jim said, moving his hand from Blair's arm to his chest. "Calm down and just let the doc give you something. I think you made your point with O'Neill."
"Oh man, he's an arrogant son-of -a-bitch," Blair said, and the fury had already faded, and Jim could feel the emotional fatigue starting to gather.
"He is," Dr. Frasier agreed, "but he's good at his job. And while I haven't worked with many Sentinels, my specialty is rare and exotic disease and disorders, so I have worked with them. Most Sentinels would have violently reacted to the thought that someone had attacked the companion. I've never known a Sentinel stable enough to take a frontline position, so Colonel O'Neill does have cause for concern even if his way of testing that concern is medically and ethically unforgivable."
Jim shrugged. "Blair's pretty good at taking care of himself. He doesn't need me to fight his battles," Jim commented as he listened to the conversation in the hallway. O'Neill was taking Blair's creative attack a lot better than Jim expected. Oh, he was cursing Blair's name up one way and down the other, but he wasn't actually angry. Hammond... he was a little less amused. It seemed that Jim had proven his emotional stability, and Blair had put his in question. Tomorrow Blair would have to decide if that was a bridge that he wanted to repair.
"Suddenly, all I want to do is sleep," Blair complained softly. Jim gave the doc a wry grin as he smelled the light sedative in the drip.
"Sleep is the best healer right now. You're exhausted more than anything, so just let yourself sleep," Frasier suggested. "Colonel Ellison, would you like the orderlies to pull a second bed up close? You look about as run over as Dr. Sandburg does."
"Yeah," Jim agreed, that'd be good.
The doctor nodded and headed off to find someone who could move the bed. Jim could have moved it himself, but the doctor was right, he felt about as run down as Blair looked. Blair's mouth was already hanging open in sleep, and Jim swung his legs up and just perched his body on the edge of Blair's bed, just to rest for a second before Dr. Frasier got him a bed ready. Just for a second.
Blair woke in the middle of the night, his arm dead and his fingers tingling from Jim's weight. "Shove over," Blair whispered, trying not to bring the nurse over. Thank god the IV was out, and he really didn't need more medical attention. "Jim, man, you're killing my arm," Blair complained as he pushed at his partner's shoulder. Someone had pushed a second bed up and connected it because Jim was asleep right on the crack where the two beds med, right on top of Blair's arm. "Jim!" Blair said a little louder, shoving him again.
Jim grumbled and rolled in his sleep so his back was to Blair, and at least now Blair could rescue his arm. With the circulation returned, the pins and needles were even more painful and he rubbed his arm. Jim gave a heavy sigh and then rolled back toward Blair, reaching out and pulling Blair close. "Big Bad Ranger Snuggler," Blair whispered affectionately as he curled up into Jim's chest and closed his eyes. Let Jim get squashed and wake up with pins and needles if that's what he wanted.
When Blair woke up again, Jim was gone and he was sprawled across the double hospital bed.
"Well, how's my shit-flinging patient this morning?" a cheerful voice asked. Blair blinked one eye open just far enough to see the short doctor smiling at him way too brightly for safety. He checked her hands for needles or other sharp instruments.
"I don't know. What do you have planned?" Blair asked as he rolled to his back and sat up.
"After last night's performance, I'll even give you one day's clemency for being an ass yourself."
Blair smiled as he remembered Jack's face when the line of watery shit had neatly splashed across his shirt. "He deserved it."
"Oh honey, more than you know. Now normally I'd think flinging your poop was rather primitive, but we're all trained to make use of the weapons we have."
Blair looked around. An orderly or nurse was going through a cabinet full of bottles and boxes and a soldier stood at attention just inside the door, but no Jim. "Where's Jim?"
"He decided to follow his nose to the cafeteria. By the time the trays get up here, they're cold, and he thought he'd have time for a hot breakfast before you woke up. I guess you surprised all of us by waking up early. How does the stomach feel?" And then Frasier was poking and prodding and pressing down hard enough on Blair stomach that he came seriously close to peeing on her.
"Whoa, hey, unless you want more of my bodily fluids on your floor, give me a second to go to pee," Blair grabbed at her wrist. She raised an eyebrow at him before stepping back.
"Since you're going anyway, I'll let you fill this up for me," she said as she pulled a plastic cup off a tray and held it out for him.
"If I fill that, do you promise to not stick any more needles in me?" Blair asked suspiciously.
"Not even a chance in hell," she said with a bright smile as she handed him the cup. "Bathroom's right through that door." She gestured to the side before she turned and walked away, her heels clicking on the tile.
Blair knew when he'd been beat, so he padded barefoot across the cold floor and filled the cup before finishing. After two days of not shaving, his beard was coming in pretty good and his hair was greasy and hung in limp clumps.
"Any chance I could get a razor and some soap for a shower?" Blair called from the door of the bathroom. If he got in the bed again, no way would Frasier let him out until she had poked and prodded to her heart's content and he really wanted a shower.
"Will you be a good little patient then?" Frasier rolled her chair to the edge of her office and looked at him.
"I promise not to fling any more poop."
She laughed. Standing up, she grabbed a small plastic bin from a shelf and brought it over. When Blair saw the soap and shampoo and razor, he could have kissed the woman. "Thank you," Blair said seriously as he traded the bin for the cup of pee.
"You're welcome. Besides, the rest of us will appreciate you showering too," Frasier said with a nod toward Blair's hospital bed. Blair looked over and the orderly was already stripping it, but the white sheets were definitely gray. Blair wasn't surprised because he felt gray... gray and washed out. But hopefully washing up would make the world suck a little less.
After a long hot shower and a shave, Blair felt human, but not exactly better. Option A was Section with their very bad habit of taking people out and shooting them when they got to be too much trouble. Option B was SGC, and the only nice thing Blair could say about them was that their induction rituals were actually less painful than Section's had been. Blair still trembled at the memory of that room where Madeline had 'profiled' his reactions to pain and questioning. The fact that Makepeace had to go through that again made Blair actually feel sorry for the man. And option C was the big unknown. Blair wished he could believe that Nikita had lied when she said they probably wouldn't survive going independent, but she hadn't. He knew it and Jim knew it. And Blair really wasn't into dying.
Well, he couldn't hide in the bathroom forever. Blair came out and found Jim sitting in a chair with a magazine draped over one knee and a cup of coffee in hand. Now two soldiers stood inside the door, each with matching blank expressions, but Blair could guess what their orders were.
"You look comfortable," Blair commented, ignoring the guard. Jim also looked military issue. He had on the same black t-shirt and military green pants that everyone else had on. It bothered Blair enough that he made a mental note to meditate on it later.
"I'm not. Their laundry uses cheap soap," Jim commented, and Blair immediately dropped his towel and went over to Jim. Pulling up the arm of the shirt, Blair checked the skin underneath and found the skin slightly red, but not enough to quality as a rash.
"Oh man, we've got—"
"Chief, don't," Jim said quietly. "O'Neill and Jackson are coming, and the last thing I want is to reinforce this idea they have that Sentinels are helpless." Jim's jaw was twitching, the bulge popping until Blair imagined he could almost hear the molars groan in protest.
"Fine," he whispered as he heard footsteps, but if it turns into a rash, we're complaining." Blair stepped back and spoke in a louder tone. "Oh man, tell me you got me some coffee. I am dying from caffeine withdrawal here."
"On the counter. I picked up a couple of pieces of fruit since algae wasn't on the menu."
Blair headed over to the table next to the bed they'd slept in and found a huge mug of coffee, an apple, a banana and a huge muffin. Grabbing the coffee and the muffin, Blair announced, "I love you, you know this, right?"
"Yeah, Chief, you'd follow anyone home if they had food."
"No way, I followed Iris and there was no food involved."
"So, you're saying a promise of cheap sex is enough for you?" Jim asked with some amusement.
Blair glared, fairly sure Jim was intentionally poking that sore spot. "I don't know, are you offering me cheap sex?"
"Nope," Jim shrugged and took a drink of coffee. He had that smug look on his face, and Blair could practically read his mind. Jim was offering more than cheap sex, but of course, Blair still worried about why Jim was offering sex. Blair sighed and stuffed half the muffin in his mouth to just avoid the conversation. The answer to this dilemma was fairly simple, he was going to sleep with Jim even if all Jim wanted was a way to better control the senses. Some was better than none, and right now, Blair wanted as much of Jim as he could have.
"Is the coast clear?" Daniel asked from the door.
"He doesn't have any more pans of shit, if that's what you're asking," Jim answered for him since Blair still had his mouth full.
Daniel coughed suspiciously and then came in. "I heard about that. I'm sorry I missed the..." Daniel paused and Jack came in the door behind him.
"Careful Danny, you never know when you're going to find your stash replaced with decaf again." Jack walked in and poked his thumb, which was enough to make the two guards leave.
Daniel gave Jack a dirty look, but didn't seem particularly threatened. Blair swallowed and pinned Jack with a nasty glare, one that Jack returned.
"Change shirts?" Blair asked sweetly. Jack's eyes narrowed more.
"And here I thought the Sentinel would be the one with attitude."
Jim gave a wry laugh. "You seem to have some strange assumptions, colonel."
"That's just it," Daniel hurried to say as he stepped closer. "We're all making a lot of assumptions here, and we don't really know much about each other. How much can we really learn from reading each other's files?"
"Quite a lot," Jack interrupted. "Like Colonel Ellison was a captain two weeks ago. Whose butt did you kiss for that promotion?"
"Don't even start—" Blair snapped as he got ready to throw something at the man. He really wished he had another bedpan.
Jim stood up and held out his hand. "Chief," he said quietly. It almost killed Blair, but he crossed his arms and settled for glaring as Jim put his coffee down slowly and carefully. "Colonel O'Neill, since I got here, you have lied, manipulated, and poisoned my partner."
"It was laxative. Laxative, not arsenic," Jack argued, and Jim totally ignored the man.
"You threatened to put me in lock-up and made assumptions about not only my abilities but about self-control. You have gone out of your way to belittle me and Sandburg, and my bosses arranged with the President for me to have a rank that would at least give me some protection from bullies like you."
"Hey!" Jack snapped, and Daniel's hand was there on Jack's arm. Blair watched in amusement as those two had their own staring contest for a second.
Daniel looked back at them first. "Jack may have been a little off base..."
"A little?" Blair demanded, but Jim just had his arms crossed as he stared at them.
"A little," Daniel repeated firmly. "He certainly has been showing you the same courtesy he normally reserves for visiting goa'uld and Russians."
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Jack said with a roll of his eyes. "Okay, let's lay the cards out here. I don't trust you two, and I don't know why the President wants you on the team. More than that, if your boss really is who I think he is, I don't know why Section would let you be here."
Blair looked at Jim with some alarm, but Jim seemed to take it all in calmly.
"Your intel is old. My boss is not who you think," Jim said as he gave one of those thoughtful frowns that Blair had so much trouble interpreting. He might be calculating the odds of decking Jack or just considering how much to tell Jack, who knew.
"But your boss is Section," Jack prodded. Jim nodded. "Okay, see, that would be why I don't trust you. You work for a shadow government. Tell me you aren't trying to get in here to spy on us."
"Whoa, why would we spy? Man, Section so does not need us to spy because as you already pointed out, they have your files. They have your files and they are backing your play. They ordered us to protect your position," Blair said as he poked his finger in Jack's direction. Jim came over and draped an arm over Blair's shoulders.
"The Israelis are usually on our side, and they've spied on us more than anyone," Jack almost yelled back.
"And this is completely off track," Daniel inserted as he again put his hand on Jack's arm. "Jack, just lay out what your concerns are and let's deal with them."
"Fine," Jack said, his jaw about as tight as Jim's. "Why would Section let you come here?"
Jim glanced down at Blair, but Blair had no idea what to say. All he knew was that he so did not want to end up like Tobias, but he didn't really understand where the line was. How much of Section was common knowledge, and what piece of information would get him a bullet in the back of the head? He stared back at Jim and could feel his heart start to pound faster. Jim's arm tightened on his shoulders, and Blair just leaned into that touch. "Because the President requested it," Jim answered simply.
"And Section takes orders from the President? See, I have a problem believing that," Jack said as he took a step back and leaned against the wall. "The Section I know was the wrench in the works any time they happened to cross purposes with a US mission."
Jack stared at Jim, and Daniel looked from one to the other before his gaze finally fell on Blair. Blair held both his hands up. "Don't look at me. I'm just so along for the ride and doing what Jim says when it comes to Section. I just know they're not nice people, but the times we've worked for them, they're going up against even less nice of people."
"They're black ops, a shadow government created to fight terrorism, but it grew out of the control of any one world power," Jim said shortly. "My Ranger unit was taken down by a Section team, and our rescue target disappeared."
Jack made a noise that drew Daniel's attention. "Most black ops soldiers have heard of them. They're ruthless. If you know a piece of information they want, they will get it out of you. There are stories of individual Section operatives taking out entire units. They're the boogey men of intelligence work."
"And you work for them?" Daniel asked as he looked at Blair in confusion.
"Man, I try to repress that thought any time it pops its head up," Blair said with a sigh. Shit, this was so not good for his karma, and he really disliked the fact that he was starting to see why Jack was so on edge. Of course, he wasn't sorry he'd flung runny shit at the man, but he could at least understand him. He didn't know whether to trust himself at this point.
"And now we have our very own Section operatives in the middle of the most secure base in North America. And the President seems to be under the impression that you're up for grabs, but then the President was never black ops," Jack pointed out. "Are you prepared to turn against Section?"
"No," Jim immediately answered, and Jack threw up his arm in a clear 'you see?' gesture directed at Daniel.
Daniel at least tried for calm even though Blair could see he was getting frustrated as well. "Okay, I'm obviously not understanding something. If you won't turn your back on Section, why would the President tell us that you were available and that he wanted us to try and recruit you?"
"Man, if that's your recruitment speech, I so don't want to be around when you decide you don't like someone," Blair said with a snort.
"I don't like you, Squirt," Jack immediately shot back, and Daniel glared at him. Jack put up a hand in surrender. "Fine, talk to the Section operatives all you want Danny, but I'm not about to let my guard down." Daniel kept glaring, and Jack sighed. "Look, Ellison, if you and Sandburg need help to get away from them, I'm going to be the first to step up to the plate. You have a good record, and some of the shit the service has thrown your way... you didn't deserve it. But you can't tell us that your loyalties are still with Section and not expect some suspicion on our part."
"I won't turn on Section, and you don't want me to," Jim said quietly. You're right that they're dangerous, and you don't want them wondering just how much you know."
"I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself," Jack said, and suddenly the man looked a lot more interested in what Jim was saying.
Jim just shook his head. "Not without authorization. Get the President to talk to our boss, and I will happily tell you whatever you want, but short of that, you aren't getting anything."
Daniel was biting his lip as he looked from one to the other, and Blair could admit to feeling a little panic here, himself. They were finally communicating, but the communication didn't actually seem to be improving anything.
"Okay, let's just focus on the now," Blair suggested. "Right now, we're here because our boss gave us an out."
"Working for us and spy on us," Jack said as he again crossed his arms.
Jim took a step forward so that he was between Blair and that glare and Blair had a nice view of Jim's black t-shirt. "Our boss offered to cut all ties. We can take you up on a job offer or try to run the gauntlet of intelligence services on our own."
"He's pulling security off you?" Jack asked.
"If we want, yes. If we don't, then we're in by our own choice."
"Instead of being in at the point of a gun," Jack guessed. The room went silent, and Jim slid back to Blair's side, again draping an arm over Blair's shoulders. "Your boss is a woman." Jack's statement, dropped into the middle of the silence made Blair jerk in surprise, and Jack nodded thoughtfully. "I thought you two were trying a little too hard to avoid pronouns. So, did that profiler take over?"
"I won't comment on Section policy or politics," Jim said firmly, and Jack pinned Blair with a hard look. Blair just stared back until Jack finally gave up, rubbing his face tiredly with a hand.
"You two are pains in the ass. Have you ever met a rule or regulation you didn't break?" he asked with a sort of weary admiration.
Jim gave a dark laugh. "I think with the throwing shit at a commanding officer, Sandburg pretty much finished our goal of breaking every rule in the book."
Blair was surprised to see Jack actually grin at that. "Didn't see that one coming, you betcha," he said ruefully. "Usually Danny just glares when I push too far. But I'm not seeing a logical solution here. I won't have men in my command who I can't trust."
"Man, when did you get the impression we wanted to be here?" Blair demanded. "Look, our boss ordered us to come here and play nice for five days because she's trying to play nice with the President. That doesn't mean we want to be recruited."
"You'd rather work for Section?" Jack demanded. Blair stopped, his brain not quite able to grasp the idea that the choices really did seem to be Section or Stargate Command. Cascade and their nice boring lives chasing serial killers never seemed so far away. Jim's arm around him tightened.
"Sir," Jim said carefully, and Blair could hear just how badly Jim wanted to go off in that one word. "We want to go back to Cascade and go back to our lives. Maybe we should just keep working for Section because at least that way we could pretend to have something normal between missions. If you have a secure room with more features than the cells on the lower level, I'd appreciate it, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe Sandburg and I should just spend the next four days in lockup. Give us a ride back to Cascade at the end of the week, and everyone is happy."
Blair wasn't happy. He could feel the tightness in his chest, the same panic he'd felt when the Section helicopter had landed next to them and Michael had jumped out. Blair had been sitting on the ground holding Jim's head, not knowing if the Sentinel was dying from the drugs Section had used. He had known their run was over and Section had won, and he had that same feeling of panic now. Section won. Maybe that's what all this was, some elaborate op to prove to them that even when there appeared to be an escape, that Section would always own them.
"Blair?" Jim asked.
"Is he okay?" Daniel's voice sounded funny.
"He's fine," Jim almost snapped at them.
"Just get the fuck out, okay?" Blair said as he looked up at Jack and Daniel. They both had concerned expressions, and Blair could feel the heat in his face. Yeah, Jim wasn't the one with control issues because Blair was dangerously close to breaking. "Just get the fuck out. Don't you get it? You don't have any more choice in this than we do. Section is using you like fucking pawns, and congratulations for playing their game, but just fuck off while we deal with the fact that we are exactly what you're accusing us of being. We're Section operatives and we always will be." Blair ended up yelling before he knew it, and Jack reached out and yanked Daniel back away.
"Look, Sandburg," Jack said.
"He's right." Jim's arms came around Blair's shoulders and pulled him close. "You won't trust us unless we turn on Section, Section won't let us live if we do. This is a game, colonel, a game designed to teach us all our place, and I think we all understand exactly where our places are."
Daniel started shaking his head like he was going to argue, but Jack pulled him close as he backed up toward the door. "If that's the way you want to play it, Colonel Ellison," Jack said. "There's a room ready one level up, if you'd like to follow the airman," Jack said as he stood in the open doorway and held his hand out in an invitation.
Blair crossed his arms, suddenly very aware of the fact that he was standing in scrubs, no shirt, no shoes and wet hair. Jim stared at the door for a second before reaching down and stripping off his shirt. "Here, Chief, you're already on the verge of getting sick." Jim started for the door, leaving Blair standing there just clinging to Jim's shirt.
"Aw, for pete's sake, we aren't monsters, Ellison. Danny, get Sandburg a shirt and some slippers or something," Jack sighed, and Daniel hurried over to a cabinet near the bathroom door.
"What size?" Daniel asked, and Blair could hear him struggle to still sound friendly, but Blair wasn't sure if the man was pissed at Jack or them.
"A medium's fine," Blair said as he handed Jim's shirt back. Jim slipped it back on and tucked it into his pants silently. Just as Daniel pulled out a shirt, Jim headed for the cabinet himself, and Blair froze as Jack suddenly had his sidearm out and pointed. Jim stopped without even turning around and put his hands up.
"I’m just getting him pants, colonel."
"Danny, get back here," Jack ordered, and Blair watched as Daniel detoured around Jim, who stood with his hands raised and his back turned. "You're good, Ellison. I've never seen a Sentinel half as good. I'm just sorry you put your loyalties in the wrong place."
Jim slowly lowered his hands and headed for the cabinet where he pulled out pants and underwear from the various shelves. "I don't give a rat's ass what you think of me, Colonel O'Neill," Jim said firmly as he returned and handed Blair the rest of the clothes. "You can change in the bathroom, Chief. We'll wait for you." Jim deliberately sat on the edge of the bed and crossed his arms as he watched Jack and Daniel with all the emotion of a dead fish.
Blair walked into the room and looked around in surprise. A big king-sized bed and a television and a table with four chairs wasn't what he was expecting. He had thought they would get escorted to something a little more military... something done in a nice shade of olive green and bunk beds.
"Pick up the phone and whoever is on duty will give you meal schedules and options," Jack said, and then he closed the door and even Blair could hear the heavy lock slide into place. Walking over, he sat on the bed and collapsed back so he had a nice view of a concrete ceiling. "This is another fine mess," Blair said glumly.
"That I've gotten you into?" Jim asked as he came and sat next to him on the bed.
"Oh man, don't go there. I think we both know who's to blame, and I hope she takes that trip to hell faster than I predicted."
"Chief," Jim said in a warning tone.
Blair rolled his head to the side and looked at Jim. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Man, I'm not about to give these assholes squat, especially since it looks like we're still on Section's leashes." Blair reached down and scratched his chest right over where he knew the tracker was planted. They were literally on leashes. Yeah, a good surgeon could get the leash out, but Section would come down on them before the operation was over, Blair had no doubt of that now. And even if they did manage to slip the leash, who was waiting in the wings to snatch them up?
Jim's hand rested on his, stopping him from scratching. "Chief, we can still try to run for it."
Blair snorted. "Do you really think we'll make it?"
"No," Jim said quietly and honestly. Blair nodded. Sometimes he wished Jim would lie.
"You could," Blair said softly, and he could feel the pain as deep as any gunshot wound, but he knew he was right.
"What?" Jim frowned down at him, but Blair focused his gaze on the ceiling.
"You're a Sentinel, but medical records show you're a medically average Sentinel, so no one is going to be chasing you. You heard her, people think I'm the one who's different, so they'll come after me. We aren't bonded, so you can--." Blair waved a hand in a gesture that could have meant anything, but Jim obviously understood him anyway.
"You want me to leave you behind," Jim said, and Blair knew that tone of voice. The man was going to get stubborn.
Blair shook his head. "No, I want you to stay in Cascade. It's your home, man. I always did wander the earth, so it's not such a big deal for me to end up somewhere else."
"In some prison with a king sized bed and television?" Jim asked harshly.
Blair looked around the room and imagined himself locked in some room exactly like it for the rest of his life. They'd take him out, have him work with Sentinels who weren't Jim and then at the end of the day bring him back to a room that looked like this one. If he was lucky it'd look like this one. Maybe Section would pick him up when he tried to run without Jim. He could spend the rest of his life staring at stark white corridors and working to earn enough privileges to have a television in his room. "I always told my students to take a guess on a multiple choice exam. Even if you only had a fifty-fifty chance, that's better than zero," Blair said slowly.
"Chief?" Jim's hand moved up to his cheek, and Blair angrily wiped at his tears.
"Fifty-fifty shot at one of us getting out of this. It's better than zero. Man, I would just rather know you're free of this than have both of us doing this forever," Blair whispered.
"Blair, just hold on a second." Jim stood up and grabbed a chair that he put right under the camera with the blinking red light.
"If you have once ounce of respect, you'll give us some privacy," Jim sad as he stood on the chair and looked right into the lens. Blair chuckled at the view some tech had of Jim's eye... just Jim's eye filling the whole screen. The red light kept right on blinking, and Jim reached up and slammed the side of the camera with his hand once, twice, three times. Blair heard a sharp crack, and then Jim hit it again and again until the camera peered at the room through a drunken angle. Locking his fingers, Jim held onto the camera and let his entire weight drop. With a loud crash, the camera broke off and shattered on the concrete floor. Raw wires dangled from a pipe and Jim wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Coming over, he sat on the bed next to Blair and started carding his fingers through Blair's curls.
"You know O'Neill is going to come running," Blair said.
"Maybe. Maybe he has the decency to recognize that none of us are in this situation because we want to be. Blair, this isn't how I wanted our first time, but I do want to bond."
Blair nodded. He knew Jim wanted to bond. "I know, but if you find someone else, someone who isn't a liability," Blair started, and Jim's hand was covering his mouth.
"Listen you little idiot. I want to bond with you. I want you in my life, not some random person who just happens to be attracted to me. If you don't want this... if you're afraid of making a commitment that big and you'd rather take your chances running..." Jim swallowed heavily, and his Adam's apple bobbed in time with the throbbing in his jaw. "If that's what you *want* then you tell me that you don't want me enough to make a commitment, that you're afraid of settling down, and I'll accept that." Jim moved his hand and sat back.
"You think--." Blair stopped, unable to even start processing that. "You think I don't want to make a commitment to you? What were the last four years then?" Blair demanded.
"Friendship. Isn't that what you told me, that it was about friendship?" Jim asked. "Blair, I know you're attracted to me, but I also know that you stopped smelling of attraction the minute you found out a bond is sexual. If you're more afraid of commitment than you are attracted to me, I can live with that. That doesn't mean you have to leave. We're still in this together," Jim said so seriously that Blair could only blink at the man in shock, his brain obviously not keeping up with this new turn of events.
Jim must have taken his silence for an answer because he stood up and started pacing. "If you want to split up, Stargate Command might be the best place for you. You could give O'Neill a full briefing on the condition that you live off-world and train Sentinels there, but Chief..." Jim just stopped, and Blair almost threw himself off the bed and tried to catch Jim as the man slowly sank to the ground. Instead they both sank to the concrete floor.
"I'm fine," he said, his face emotionless, but his hands trembled where they rested on his own knees.
"Oh man, you're freaking me out here. I don't want to leave you. I'll bond if that's what you want," Blair promised him as he knelt on the floor next to Jim.
Slowly Jim turned his head to look at him. "You don't smell of desire, Chief. You smell like fear. Do you really think I'd rape you just to get what I wanted?"
"What? No, no way. I know you wouldn't," Blair immediately reassured Jim, and then he tried to sort out his own feelings. Was he afraid? Oh hell yeah, of more things than he could shake a stick at, and most of them scared Jim, too. But that wasn't what Jim meant, and Blair knew it. "I'm afraid you don't really want me, that you just want a way to get better control of the senses, and I swear man, if you just get started, I'll be right there with you. Consider this just a roadblock, a mental roadblock which I am so working on," Blair said, hoping that Jim could feel the truth of his words.
"Chief, why wouldn't I want you?" Jim asked as he raised his hand and again used his thumb to brush away tears. Blair fought down an urge to scrub his face.
"Oh man, I'm so not your type. Carolyn could kick my ass. Hell, every girlfriend or boyfriend you've ever had could use me as a mop and toss me out with the garbage. I'm more the kind who cries and throws runny shit at people when life goes wrong."
Jim chuckled, and that wasn't the reaction Blair had been expecting. Blair frowned. And then Jim's chuckle turned into a laugh. "God, Chief, is that how you see yourself?"
"Man, that's how I am in case you haven't looked lately."
"Chief, do you remember the first time your mother came to stay with us?"
"What?" Blair was feeling a little like he had just fallen down a rabbit hole.
"Your mother, Naomi—the annoying but stunningly beautiful woman."
"That's my mom," Blair said as he aimed a punch at Jim's arm. Jim caught the punch and stood up, pulling Blair up with him.
"Yeah, and I begged you to send her to a hotel. I offered to pay for the hotel. I ordered you to not let her stay with us at the loft. Where did she stay?"
Blair frowned at Jim. Okay, if Jim wanted to go over old fights, this was a strange place to start. "Man, it wasn't that big of a deal. It was only three days."
"Three days of her staying at the loft, rearranging my furniture, burning sage, and telling me 'I hear that.' And that case we were working at the time... I begged you to go undercover. I even went to Simon and got Simon to try and talk you into it."
"And I did. Man, I thought I was going to piss my pants when we stole the Rolls Royce and you weren't in the fucking car. Shit, I thought they had nailed us. And when the guy showed up at the loft...?" Blair whistled at that thought.
"That's funny, Chief. The way I remember it, you put your foot down and refused to go. Simon and I struck out and you only went undercover because your mom ordered you not to," Jim said, and Blair frowned as he realized that was true. Man, he had never been so embarrassed.
"When we started, you remember Simon's rule? Observers stayed behind the yellow tape. Simon went from 'keep him off crime scenes'," Jim said in a fairly good impression of their captain, "to 'have the scene cleared before you let Sandburg out of the truck' to 'for God's sake, Jim, get the kid a bullet proof vest.'" Jim crossed his arms and looked at Blair significantly.
Okay, Blair remembered that. "Hey, Simon was just spouting department policy, but with your senses, it didn't make sense to follow rules written for actual observers, who are, for the most part, kids that want to grow up to be cops."
"Uh huh," Jim said as he sat on the chair he'd just used to break the camera. "And who convinced me that Harry Conkle was telling the truth about having cancer and not being the one who killed those cops during the bank job? And who followed me into an undercover job with the Lazar family and into Starkville prison, both after I specifically ordered him not to follow me? Who has my pin number and access to all my accounts?"
"Jim, fine, I'm not always the best at following orders. I don't 'stay in the truck' well." Blair rolled his eyes and made quote marks in the air with his fingers. "And I think I've admitted this. Why are you bringing this up now?" Blair sank onto the edge of the bed and stared at Jim in confusion.
"Chief, what did you say my type was?" Jim asked slowly, and Blair narrowed his eyes at the tone. No fucking way was Jim going to start acting all condescending toward him, not after the week he'd had.
"Look, Ellison, if you want to do your asshole impression, go practice on the mirror because I'm at the end of my rope here, and given a little time, I can come up with more ammunition for flinging."
Jim leaned back with that smug look, and then the pieces slid into place in Blair's brain so fast that it almost hurt. Oh fuck. Oh fuck and fuck. "No," Blair said as he looked at Jim in shock.
"Blair, you *made* Simon take you with him when you were investigating my disappearance. You're the only man I've ever seen make Simon back down. The reason O'Neill hates you is that he's the alpha dog around here, and you're peeing on his territory, or in your case, shitting on it. That was a little literal, even for you, but you made your point."
"No way. Man, I do not play alpha games," Blair protested.
"You don't raise your leg and pee on the tree," Jim admitted slowly, so slowly that Blair narrowed his eyes and waited for the punch line. "You just burn the tree down and squat on the ashes. But, Chief, just because you don't play the game the way most men do, that doesn't mean you aren't in there playing. Shit, I don't think I even recognized what you were doing, not until you moved into the loft and a month later I'm buying protein powder for your shakes. I'm standing in the store, and I suddenly realize that you have effectively just run a tight end play around all my defenses and have set up camp in my backfield. If I'd had any idea you were open to a homosexual relationship, I would have come home that day and seduced you. You're absolutely right, Chief; I do go for alpha partners. I have no idea how to make a relationship work, so I pick people who will hopefully run it for me, and I can go along for the ride. Blair, you've run this relationship since day one."
"Oh shit," Blair said as Jim stood up and slowly walked to in front of him. Reaching down, Jim put his hands on either side of Blair's face and then slowly leaned down, tilting his head so they could kiss. They'd kissed before: Jim's lips pressing against Blair's forehead when Blair had been drugged; a brush of dry lips when they'd been undercover as a couple. This was nothing like that. Jim's lips moved slowly against his, a warm tongue brushing against his lower lip so gently that Blair shivered. Reaching up, Blair hooked his hand around the back of Jim's neck and pulled him closer.
Jim lost his balance and fell forward, bracing himself on his hands as he arched over Blair, and Blair just deepened the kiss, exploring, teasing, pressing forward when he felt tiny tremors in Jim's body and easing back when he could hear the gasps that told him the sensory input had become too much. After long minutes, Blair collapsed onto his back and looked at Jim who was still braced on his arms and looking down.
"Do I smell like fear now?" Blair teased. Jim's eyes were black, and all the hairs on his arms were standing straight up.
Jim didn't answer.
"Jim?" Blair asked in concern, and as he started to sit up, and then Jim was next to him on the bed, his body beside Blair, one leg draped over Blair as he kissed Blair again. The first time, Jim had been gentle, and Blair had pushed, but this time, Jim moved in aggressively, his teeth capturing Blair's lower lip so Blair could only gasp for air. And then Jim's mouth was over his, and they were both reaching for each other, pulling each other closer. Finally, Blair pulled back, gasping.
Jim lay on his side, watching Blair, studying him with an intensity Blair had never seen before. "Aww, shit," Blair panted as he lay looking at the ceiling trying really hard to not come in his pants. Of course, if he did, they could just keep going; he was young enough to do twice in a night. If the rest of the sex was as good as the kissing, he was young enough to make it three times in a night. Blair looked over and Jim was still watching with that black-eyed intensity.
"Oh man, this is so not going to last long," he sighed as he pulled his shirt off. Immediately, Jim's hands were there, gently brushing over the skin, ticking and teasing until Blair couldn't just lay still. Reaching out, Blair yanked on Jim's shirt, and Jim pulled it off, revealing chest muscles that Hercules would have envied. Blair took one finger and ran it from Jim's neck down to his belt buckle, always keeping it just a millimeter above the skin. He watched as goose pimples formed, and finally Jim arched his back so Blair's finger brushed against the skin just south of his belly-button. Jim gasped and bucked, and for a second, Blair thought it might be over for Jim, but then he calmed and lay still as Blair reached over and kissed the skin he had just touched.
Jim actually squirmed, and Blair pulled back, breathing gently against Jim's skin as he slowly moved north, again, not actually touching as he watched the skin contract and goose pimple under him. Blair reached a small dark nipple and breathed on it, watching it contract and harden, and then Jim's hands grabbed his shoulders and Jim's hips thrust up. Well, Jim was young enough to go a second time if he had to. Blair reached down and took the nipple in his mouth, sucking the hard flesh as Jim bucked and fought under him. A hand found the back of his head and pulled him closer and Blair lost the nipple, gasping as Jim's knee slipped between his legs and pressed up.
"Blair," Jim cried out, and then Jim jerked and Blair found himself lost in his own orgasm and their sweating bodies pressed together. Clutching at each other, they both cried out wordlessly and then sank back down into post-orgasmic stupor.
Slowly cooling in the silent room, Blair lay with his head on Jim's chest and listened to his heart beat. Fingers slowly played with his hair, and Blair watched a muscle ripple right below Jim's collar bone each time the arm moved. Shit. He'd never come like that. Okay, he'd come that pathetically fast before, but never with that intensity. Fast orgasms were like popcorn, only this one was definitely breaking the rules because Blair could still feel the aftershocks like electricity randomly tingling down his backbone.
Blair could still feel the ripples of bliss as Jim's hand worked its way down to his back.
"You okay?" Blair asked fuzzily.
"Not an answer," Blair pointed out, his voice as blurry as his focus right now.
"The senses are sharper, I'm happy," Jim said. "Except for me coming in my pants like a teenager because we don't have more clothes." And that sounded more like his always-practical Sentinel, his down-to-earth lover. Lover. Blair resisted an urge to giggle.
"Who cares? They were giving you a rash anyway," Blair shrugged as he struggled to reach down and found Jim's buckle. Who wore a belt with a t-shirt? Blair tugged at it several times before he could finally figure out how to get it off, and then he threw it across the room and got to work on the button.
"Fuck," Jim softly swore as Blair got the pants unfastened. When Jim raised his hips, Blair quickly pushed the pants down to reveal a soft cock nestled in the hair. Blair traced the edge of it, exploring the unfamiliar shape and just a little amused that Jim was circumcised and he wasn't, but then his mother wasn't exactly a traditional Jew.
Jim made a little happy grunt, and Blair let his hand explore, to trace the path of a muscle down onto Jim's leg and then up to the taut stomach. Blair own cock gave a tiny twitch as he watched Jim's hands fist the bedspread. "Dial up touch," Blair whispered, and Jim arched his neck without answering. Blair bent over and breathed over the soft cock, watching with fascination as the skin contracted and the hairs moved a second before the organ twitched.
Reaching out with a tongue, Blair barely traced the ridge, and Jim groaned and arched his back as the cock started to stir already, thickening slowly. Blair took a second to slip off the end of the bed and carefully pull off Jim's shoes. He could tell by the lazy roll of Jim's hips that touch was way up, he was feeling the satin of the bedspread. Hell, Jim was probably feeling fingerprints on the bedspread at this point. Heading over to the wall, Blair turned off the lights, and then realized there was a little problem because he wasn't a Sentinel.
"Okay, plan B," he muttered as he felt his way toward the bathroom and clicked on that light. By the time the much dimmer light came back on, Jim had kicked off his pants and was a good halfway to his second erection. Blair padded over to the bed, and jumped in surprise when Jim suddenly sat up. With the lights down low, his eyes looked all black and almost inhuman, and Blair didn't really have time to think about that before Jim caught him, his heels hooking the back of Blair's legs and pulling him so close that their erections rubbed against each other.
Blair found himself flipped onto his back, and Jim straddled him, slowly undulating so that their erections slid past each other. Jim did that several times before he settled on Blair's thighs, his knees open as he started his own exploration. Jim's hands were much more thorough, touching every millimeter with whisper touches until Blair squirmed and gasped with a feeling that was something between ticklish and being more horny than he ever had been in his entire life.
When Jim had finished mapping everything from Blair's waist to his fingertips, Jim's hands finally moved down to Blair's cock, which was nearly as hard as it had been earlier. Minutes earlier? Hours? Blair had no clue, but he desperately fisting the bedspread and struggling to hump up into the touch that explored the foreskin, stretching it to just the point of discomfort and then stopping. Jim closed his fist around the shaft and held it tighter and tighter, until Blair cried out and then Jim moved to cup his balls, feeling them and weighing them in his hand.
And then Jim sat back and just stared, his head cocked to the side, and Blair could see the 'otherness' in Jim.
"Jim?" he whispered, and Jim frowned as though the noise had been too loud. "Come on," Blair said, his voice little more than a breath, "don't do some weird zone on me because I am way too horny to try and talk your ass out of a zone."
Jim's nose flared, and he leaned forward, seeking a spot just under Blair's jaw. Jim licked it and then sucked the sensitive skin just hard enough to make Blair squirm. The second Blair moved, Jim laid his full weight on Blair, and Blair couldn't do much more than lay there as Jim's mouth worked around to the side of his neck and then down. A strong hand caught his wrist and pushed his arm up, and Blair just let Jim have his way since something was happening to Jim's senses. Besides, it wasn't like Blair was suffering. He was just glad he had come once or the frustration would have been killing him.
Jim worked his way down until his was mouthing the skin just in front of Blair's underarm, muttering almost silently under his breath before he again started sucking hard enough to leave hickies.
"Jim, man, I can't hold out. Have some mercy," Blair whispered as soft as he could, but the only reaction he got in return was a tightening of Jim's hand on his leg. Desperately, Blair whimpered and tried to push himself up on one elbow, but then Jim moved in and started sucking the skin between Blair's nipples. He slowly inched south, and every movement left Jim's weight on Blair's cock, and Blair panted and cried out as the need built and built only to have Jim slowly work south.
By the time Jim detoured around Blair's aching cock and started working on the crease between his hip and leg, Blair was fairly incoherent. Incoherent enough that when Jim flipped him and started working on the back of his knees with that talented mouth, Blair mindlessly humped into the bed and came for the second time. This time, he lay passively limp against the now-ruined bedspread, but at least now he was blissfully content as Jim continued his exploration of this new territory. Hot hands skimmed over his back, his shoulders, his buttocks and down his legs. Strong thumbs worked the bottoms of his feet and then the massage moved north while Blair just lay passively, completely destroying Jim's whole theory that Blair was alpha because right now Jim could do anything, and Blair was going to be a big pile of submissive goo.
Blair's eyes remained closed as Jim finished on the back and flipped Blair over again. "Blair?" Jim whispered so close to Blair's ear that it tickled the little hairs.
Reaching up, Blair caught the back of Jim's head and pulled him in for a kiss.
"You okay?" Jim asked, nearly Sentinel soft.
"More okay than I can explain, but you're looking sore," Blair said as he caught a glimpse of Jim's hard cock. Blair smiled as he considered repaying the favor and making Jim come on the bedspread. Or maybe he should do something more creative. Pushing on Jim's shoulder, Blair urged the man onto his back and started at a nipple before tracing Jim's own path down the center of Jim's chest and to the groin.
Oh yeah, Jim needed something. Just like Jim had left his hard and aching cock, Blair detoured around and tasted the musky skin on either side. Beneath him, Jim's legs trembled, and he made harsh sounds that Blair just couldn't ignore. Taking pity on Jim, Blair opened his mouth and took as much of Jim into his mouth as he could all at once, sucking enthusiastically. Jim screamed and thrust up so hard that Blair nearly choked before he backed off and got a hand around the shaft of Jim's cock and started working the head.
Blair no more than touched the slit and tasted salt before Jim came with a shuddering cry. Blair sucked until Jim finished and then licked his lips as he crawled his way back up to his lover.
"Blair," Jim breathed into the near-dark.
"If we're in lockdown for four days, can we do this for four days?" Blair asked playfully as he collapsed against Jim's side. His body was both relaxed and utterly spent.
"Didn't those reports say that it took many rounds of sex to finalize the bond?" Jim asked sleepily even though it was still morning.
"Yep," Blair agreed.
"Sounds like a mission to me," Jim said as he pulled Blair close. Blair let himself not sleep as much as just drift to the sound of Jim's heartbeat in the silence of the room.
The phone interrupted Blair's lazy sleep, and Blair could only guess it was morning. The last request for a meal had brought pork chops, but they might have missed a meal somewhere, and neither of them had bothered turning on the television.
Leaning across Jim's body, Blair picked up the phone.
"Are you two decent or still fucking like bunnies?" O'Neill asked.
"Um, both." Blair rubbed his face and tried to ignore the frustration starting to build at the very sound of Jack's voice. Jim chuckled and large hands traced some pattern on Blair's hips that only Sentinel eyes could see.
"General Hammond is requesting your presence in the briefing room. I'll send an airman with clean clothes." The phone went dead.
"Sure, we'd love an invitation. How about tomorrow around noon?" Blair asked sarcastically as he hung up the already dead phone. Jim laughed again.
"We have to get out of bed at some point, Chief," Jim pointed out.
"We have. I've gotten out of bed to pee and shower. You've answered the door for food, showered, and spent an hour staring at a painting of trees. See, that's too much out of bed time already," Blair complained softly as he lay down on Jim's chest. Hands immediately ghosted over his skin. Unfortunately, a knock interrupted them when Blair was just sinking into that happy place that was all about lazy touches.
"Annoying minions of the assholed one," Blair said as he crawled out of bed and pretty much stormed over to the door and threw it open. The airman on the other side turned out to be an airwoman who immediately blushed dark red at the sight of Blair in nothing but his tribal necklace.
"Your clothing, sir," she said as she thrust the pile into Blair's arms before quickly turning her back. Blair kicked the door closed with a bare foot. When Blair turned around, Jim was smirking.
"O'Neill did that on purpose," Blair growled as he threw the neatly folded pile at Jim.
"Of course he did," Jim said. "I'll have to thank him later because the look on her face was really just about perfect. You're lucky she didn't knee you, run away screaming, and file charges for sexual harassment."
Blair flipped Jim off, and the other man just laughed as he dug through the pile for the clothes that would fit him. Blair watched Jim move, and was struck by how much more at ease the man seemed now. He laughed a lot more and smiled, and when their dinner showed up burned, had a hundred stories about the Army and bad food instead of growling his displeasure. "Are you getting dressed, Chief, or do you plan to meet with General Hammond naked?"
"Oh man, now that would be precious," Blair said with a wicked smile of his own. Almost immediately, the phone started to ring. Blair looked over suspiciously.
"Tell me he didn't hear that," Blair said as he crossed his arms.
"I picked up the echo from the bug yesterday, but they only have audio, no visual," Jim answered as he pulled on pants. The phone kept ringing. "Don't get your pants wedged up your ass, O'Neill, he's getting dressed," Jim told the ceiling before he tossed Blair the other pair of pants. The phone stopped ringing.
Jim padded over, still barefoot and shirtless, and Blair might have taken interest in a shirtless Jim except for the fact that he had come so much in the last two days that he was fairly sure he wasn't going to be able to hard again. Bending over, Jim whispered in his ear. "O'Neill's trying to give you a heads up that others have heard. NID on scene."
Turning around, Jim headed back for the bed and grabbed one of the black shirts. Blair twitched at the idea of one more secret agency running around. He was as much of a conspiracy theorist as anyone... more than most maybe, but he never wanted to have a close, personal relationship with the conspiracies.
With disgust, Blair pulled on his pants and ran fingers through his hair until he could pull all the curls back into a ponytail. Blair's mood didn't improve as they walked with their escort back down to the lowest levels of the complex. This time they ended up in a new room, a conference room with a huge table. General Hammond was at one end, and all of SG-1 lined up on his right. Blair gave Jack an extra glare before he focused on the other side of the table.
A sharp faced man sat in a tailored suit with a thick file lined up in front of him, but even Blair could smell military on the man, and beside him sat an older soldier in a dress uniform with body language that almost screamed its deference to him. Okay, this would be the NID agent.
"Detective Ellison, Dr. Sandburg," General Hammond said as he stood up to meet them. Jim stood stiffly, but Hammond just walked around the table and offered him a handshake. Once he had shaken hands with Jim, Hammond offered Blair his hand, and Blair shook it suspiciously.
"I'm sorry about the trick, Dr. Sandburg. This is not a traditional command, and I'm afraid that we do use rather unconventional approaches to evaluating our candidates' suitability in the field." Blair wished he could hate Hammond, but over the last couple of days, he had kinda figured that out on his own.
"Man, I just wish you had asked us if we wanted to be recruited before the hazing," Blair said with a roll of his eyes that reduced the whole event to an annoyance.
"Yes, I heard that O'Neill made a particularly bad impression on you both," the sharp-faced man offered. He was standing now, as were his buddy and SG1.
Hammond paused for just a second, just enough to let Blair know that despite Hammond's neutral expression, he didn't like the new guy. "Colonel Simmons, this is Dr. Sandburg and Detective Ellison. And this is Sergeant Collins." Simmons' military buddy simply offered a nod.
"Detective?" Simmons eyebrows went up and the amusement in his voice set Blair on edge. Before he could say anything, Jim had stepped forward.
"My commission hasn't been reactivated."
Simmons nodded. "I had noticed some rather confusing paperwork. Certain paperwork suggests you've been called to active duty, another paperwork trail says you're currently on loan to the FBI for an invisible taskforce, and a mysterious promotion was approved through equally mysterious channels, and yet no one wants to challenge any of it. Up until now you have had some powerful protectors," Simmons said, and if Blair thought they were going to start with the small talk, he was obviously wrong.
"And?" Jim asked dryly. It was the tone that often made suspects start babbling confessions just to avoid whatever might follow.
"And now you don't. Section has pulled out of Cascade."
Blair reached over and grabbed Jim's arm. No way. No way would Nikita tell them they had a choice, back them into choosing Section, and then abandon them. Okay, Nikita would, but not without some sort of reason. Jim reached down and rested a hand on Blair's back.
"Clearly you are less than impressed with the way Stargate Command is run, which is hardly surprising considering the number of times the base has been compromised." Simmons smiled with crocodile charm. "I will say, the bedpan was a nice touch, Dr. Sandburg." The smugness just set Blair's teeth on edge, and no one else in the room seemed to appreciate it either.
"I'm even less impressed with you than I am with Colonel O'Neill at this point," Jim said as he almost bristled with aggression.
"Hey, I could do an encore of the bedpan trick if you want." Blair crossed his arms and looked at Simmons to let him know exactly which direction the shit would be flying this time.
Jack got an amused look on his face. "Now kids," he said in a mockingly paternal voice, "you play nice."
Jim glanced over, and Blair couldn't quite identify the communication that passed between them before Hammond was moving back to the head of the table. "The President has given Colonel Simmons permission to offer you an alternative to working for Stargate Command." Hammond's voice was carefully neutral as he sat at the table. SG1 carefully settled back into their chairs, but Simmons walked around to the end of the table where Jim and Blair stood and offered his hand.
"Colonel Frank Simmons, and I'm sorry I seemed to have made a poor first impression because I think I can offer you a deal that can top anything the SGC can put together." Simmons had come at them with his an unctuous smile that reminded Blair of the Chancellor and all her butt-kissing politics, but before he could do much more than register his dislike, Blair found himself pushed behind Jim.
"Way to prove you're not a caveman," Blair whispered sarcastically, but Jim didn't move from the spot in front of Blair as he stood off against Simmons with his arms crossed. Blair could barely see the colonel as he looked around Jim's shoulder. Simmons' smile slowly faded as he pulled his hand back.
Jack really was smirking now. Smirking and leaning back in his chair with undisguised amusement. At least Daniel was trying for subtle as he watched with a gaze that flickered from them to the table, back to them and then to Jack.
"I can respect your suspicion given the circumstances," Simmons said. The warmth was gone from his voice, but he didn't sound hostile, either. "Perhaps you might feel more comfortable after looking at the details of my offer." Simmons turned back and flipped open his file folder. "I have all the specifics here, but let me outline the deal in broad strokes. Dr. Sandburg would work for us training Sentinels. We can set up a training facility outside Cascade, so you will be able to stay in the area and remain in close contact with friends and family. The training facility would house no more than three Sentinels at a time and a wide range of individuals would remain on base so Dr. Sandburg would have discretion regarding the choice of guides."
Blair stepped forward so that he could catch the packet of papers Simmons sent sliding down the table. "As you can see the salary starts at $117,000 a year, and if the program is successful, bonuses are possible."
Jack whistled. "I didn't know Satan paid so much for souls."
"Colonel," General Hammond said sharply.
Simmons glared at the man. "Detective Ellison," Simmons finally said as he turned back to Jim and Blair, "you may either choose to reactivate your commission and take a leadership role on base or we are prepared to hire you as a civilian consultant. In addition to the Sentinel work Dr. Sandburg will be doing, we will have covert training classes on base, which will provide the pool of potential guides. Your background qualifies you to either teach training classes or coordinate the facility, your choice."
"Wait! You're giving him his own base?!" Jack asked as he now leaned forward. The facetious expression was gone as he frowned at Simmons.
"What are you offering him? His own SG team? You're out of your league here, colonel," Simmons said with a dismissive expression.
"You're assuming I want a command," Jim pointed out dryly.
Simmons shook his head. "We're just as happy to hire you as a trainer, Detective Ellison, just as long as you remember that you will be answering to whoever is in charge of the facility under those circumstances."
"But you won't let him stay a detective with the Cascade police," Blair said the thing that really bothered him the most. Blair loved working with victims in Cascade, loved it. But he'd loved researching South American customs and he'd loved researching people with one or two enhanced senses, and he'd really loved annoying Jim to death with testing. As long as he had Jim, he'd be happy. But Jim was a cop. Blair couldn't really imagine him sitting behind a big desk doing paperwork, and while he could see Jim teaching classes on military tactics, he couldn't see Jim only teaching class.
Simmons sighed as though Blair had just asked a particularly naïve question. "Dr. Sandburg, we can't have you running into the middle of a firefight because Detective Ellison has a zone."
"Zones out," Blair corrected the man automatically.
"When he zones out.... I stand corrected. However, your expertise is simply too valuable to waste, either on the streets of Cascade or on an SGC team."
Blair looked from Simmons to Jim and then to the general. Okay, this was all getting officially strange.
"Why?" Blair asked.
That question caught Simmons off guard. He sat back in his chair and just frowned at Blair for a second.
"You have obviously developed new techniques for training Sentinels that are providing far more useful results. That's worth quite a lot, Dr. Sandburg. Furthermore, you have provided these techniques to Section. While certainly not a terrorist organization or even particularly hostile to American interests, Section is a competing agency. Some might believe that if you were to provide valuable information to a competitor and refuse that same information to the American government, that you could be accused of treason."
Blair could almost feel the aggression rolling from Jim. "So, if we don't work for you, you'll arrest us?" Jim asked.
"Assuming you don't disappear before we have the chance," Simmons said calmly. Blair could feel his stomach sour, and Daniel had an alarmed expression on his face now.
"Do they need lawyers here?" Daniel asked as he leaned forward. "Because they're civilians, and as civilians, they have a right to a lawyer if there's a question of legality."
Simmons gave Daniel a looked of amused condescension. "Dr. Jackson, we're simply discussing options and realities. No one is talking about arresting Detective Ellison and Dr. Sandburg."
"Yet," Blair spat the word. "No, you just make vague threats, but man, I have been threatened by better. And as far as working for you, I would spork myself to death before I'd work for the NID."
Jack spluttered with laughter as his attempt to drink water ended badly. "You tell 'em, Squirt."
Colonel Simmons stood up. "Dr. Sandburg, perhaps you should discuss this with your partner because I don't believe you understand the gravity of this situation. Section has withdrawn their protection, a dozen different agencies have seen what your Sentinel and what Section's Sentinels can now do, and now they're all looking to you for explanations. How many offers of protection can you afford to turn down?"
"Forget it," Blair said, crossing his arms.
Jack stood up. "Hey, you heard the kid, forget it Simmons. Go slime your way into someone else's life." By the time Jack finished, General Hammond and the rest of SG1 were on their feet.
"This is the security of the nation we're talking about, gentlemen." Simmons looked from Jack to Jim and back, clearly not sure who he was supposed to be fighting.
Blair had the weird feeling that he was the prize in a boxing match, and three colonels were about to start throwing punches. Blair inched closer to Jim. Yeah, Jim might think Blair was in charge in their relationship, but when it came to these overt, militaristic shows of power, Blair knew damn well that he came in a pretty sorry second to Jim. In fact, Jim had his arms crossed over his chest as he glared at the whole room in clear alpha-male warning of his own.
"I think my partner was pretty clear, Simmons. We aren't interested in working for the NID," Jim growled. Blair felt a heavy arm go over his shoulders, and he leaned into the touch.
Simmons stared at Jack for a second, a second during which Jack just smirked right back. "And how did you know I represent the NID?" he asked Jim even while still focusing on Jack.
"Hey, wasn't me." Jack held up his hands. "Ellison's got a good nose on him, who knows what he smells on you."
Blair choked back a laugh at the expression on Simmons' face, and Simmons turned to them. "Think about the offer. I'll leave the contracts with you," Simmons said with a nod toward the thick stack still sitting on the table in front of Blair. "We're offering you something that comes closer to your current life than anyone else could offer you."
Simmons stalked out of the room, his silent minion following close behind.
"Well that was..." Jack's voice trailed off.
"Disquieting?" Daniel suggested.
"I was going to go for something more inappropriate," Jack shrugged.
"Gentlemen," Hammond said, focusing on Jim and Blair as SG1 took their seats again. "The offer Colonel Simmons brought is genuine. I can't say I like the man, but I have it from the President that the government will honor any deals he makes."
"Funny, they're after the runt, after all," Jack said with a dry laugh.
"Colonel, that runt has given Section an advantage that's only now being recognized in the intelligence community. Old dogs like you and me were introduced to the idea of Sentinels as niche players with very little practical application in the field."
"Hey!" Blair protested. "That is so not true. Jim is a walking crime lab. Have you seen his case closure rate?"
"That's the point, Chief," Jim said as he tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders. "If the military had trained my senses, I wouldn't be a walking crime lab."
General Hammond shook his head. "Son, I doubt you'd be able to function as a detective at all. Hundreds of men and women have the potential for hyperactive senses, and for the most part, the military avoids activating them. Active Sentinels are territorial, aggressive, prone to seizures and allergies, and have limited control over their senses. Surveillance equipment is far more accurate."
Blair frowned at that description. "No way."
"Without your training, that is true of Sentinels," Hammond said.
Jack nodded in agreement. "But if you can train Sentinels as good as Ellison here, I can see the advantage of that. The General and I have actually been doing a lot of reviewing on your case and on some intel the CIA has gathered on Section, not that they have that much, but," Jack shrugged. "The point is that you're good, Ellison. I never would have dreamed of sending a Sentinel in undercover, and you've handled some difficult assignments, and from the oddities in your case files, you've used your senses heavily while undercover. I can definitely see the advantage of that."
"Indeed. Tau'ri equipment is conspicuous when attempting to conceal one's identity," Teal'c offered. Blair blinked, totally caught off balance by the sudden lack of aggression in the room.
"Would you like to take a seat?" Hammond waved a hand toward the half-dozen open chairs at the table, and Blair glanced up at Jim.
Jim had a curious expression on his face, but Blair wasn't about to ask what he was picking up on. He just followed Jim's lead, dropping into a seat and rolling it a little closer to the seat Jim had taken at the far end of the table from General Hammond. Now Jim and Blair were on one side of the table with the four members of SG1 on the other.
"Simmons and his buddy leave behind NID cooties?" Jack asked as he glanced at the empty chairs between Jim and General Hammond.
"I don't like the way he smells," Jim shrugged.
"Look," Daniel jumped in, and Blair could pretty much guess that the man hoped to talk fast enough to keep Jack quiet. Jack seemed to accept that Daniel was taking center stage because he leaned back in his chair and watched his teammate. "This mission left us all on edge. Let's start by defining the positions that we each feel are absolutely non-negotiable. If Section has withdrawn, you need protection, and maybe we can find some common ground."
Blair glanced at Jim, but the man had emotionally withdrawn.
"We aren't talking about Section. Man, I so do not even want to think about Section too loudly because those people are scary. Way scarier than you are," Blair said as he looked around the table.
Daniel glanced at Jack, but it was General Hammond who actually spoke up. "Son, did you choose to join Section?"
Blair snorted, but then shut up as Jim's hand rested on his arm in a warning.
Jack leaned forward. "I don't want Section getting first hand stories about what goes on in here. It's bad enough that the entire base knows that I got shit thrown at me, I really don't need that story going any farther."
Blair had no idea what to say to that. He remembered being in that chair, and the pain. He never thought he could hurt so much, and if it came down to it, Blair was fairly sure he would confess to shooting President Kennedy and fathering alien babies before he would hold out against that pain.
Luckily Jim spoke. "I can't make promises, Colonel, no more than any other member of your team could. I won't willingly give them information and if my information is time sensitive, I will hold out as long as I can to give you an advantage, but when it comes down to it, if Section wants the information out of us, they will get it. No matter what I agree to here, Section can torture information out of any person in this room, and if they feel a need to, they will."
Jack leaned back and really studied Jim. "I just don't want you making weekly reports. If they're going to get information on us, I want to make their lives just a little difficult."
"Agreed. We will not report back to Section voluntarily, and if they ask for a report, we will do our best to inform you that they seemed to have changed their tactics." Jim shrugged. "Of course, if we limit the information, they can kidnap any one of your airmen and torture information out of them just as easily."
Jack and Hammond traded looks. "As long as you aren't writing reports, that's fair," Jack said.
Daniel smiled at him. "Okay, so we have some common ground."
"They are not going on a team," Jack immediately countered in a tone that challenged anyone to argue with him. Daniel's smile vanished at Jack's tone of voice.
"Jim's the one who got the job done, not you," Blair snapped right back.
"I don't even know what job got done. He tells me there's a new foothold situation with an unidentified alien, and then he checks out for lala land. You think I'm going to have that in the middle of an op?" Jack demanded.
"Whoa, if you hadn't split us up, he wouldn't have zoned."
"HEY!" Daniel shouted over both of them. "We're defining positions, not arguing over the mission."
Teal'c almost smiled. "It appears they are, in fact, arguing over the mission," he intoned seriously. Daniel glared at him.
"No, they aren't," Daniel said firmly. Teal'c tilted his head.
Jack was still shaking his head. "Sandburg, I won't have you in the field and if you aren't there, I don't want Ellison close enough to even hear the field."
"Because of my theories on Sentinels?" Blair asked incredulously. "Man, I can give you a copy of my not-so-secret dissertation. It's not like I'm doing something wild and crazy; I just treat Jim like a competent human being."
Jack laughed and poked his thumb at Sam. "Carter here has a PhD in being way too good at knowing everything and is the leading authority on the Stargate, the dialing device, the hand device and just about every other piece of alien tech we've ever found. Daniel has PhD's in Archeology and Philology and can curse at me in more languages than anyone else--on or off earth. And Teal'c--" Jack looked over and Teal'c just gazed back. "Teal'c's Teal'c," Jack shrugged. "Look, if I was worried about protecting assets, I'd worry a lot more about their assets than yours. But they aren't going to have a panic attack in the middle of a mission."
"That wasn't--" Blair started, but Jim cut him off.
"That's fair," Jim said. Blair turned and glared at the man, but Jim had his stoic look on. "Chief, you always come through in the end, but if you panic on a mission, even for a second, you could make younger members of the team panic. If you're working with me or Simon, that doesn't matter. It would with some eighteen year old first lieutenant from Omaha. Besides," the corner of Jim's lips twitched, "do you even want a combat position?"
"So not the point, man," Blair said unhappily.
Jack just snorted at the admission that Blair didn't actually want the position. "It's not just you Sandburg. I won't have Ellison in the field either. As a captain, he'd be an asset, but as a colonel, he'd be an unmitigated disaster."
Jim's hand on Blair's arm tightened immediately. "Blair, I have to focus on my senses and let you watch my back. A team leader is supposed to be in control at all times. O'Neill's right; a Sentinel really is not designed for a command position." Blair opened his mouth to argue that piece of illogical logic.
"I wouldn't send Carter in command of a combat mission for the same reason," Jack said before Blair could even get out a sound. "She has saved our lives more often than I can count, but for her to use her skills, she needs to concentrate on whatever gizmo is trying to blow us up. It's my job to defend her so she can concentrate. Being a Sentinel is no different. Ellison can't be a colonel and a Sentinel at the same time."
Blair looked around the room and realized that as much as he hated it, as much as he thought of Jim as being damn near unstoppable, Jack was being frighteningly logical. "Man, it really sucks that you're being reasonable. I really preferred hating you," Blair complained, and even Hammond smiled at that. However, if Jim and Jack were going to gang up on a particular point, Blair had to admit that he probably wasn't going to win.
"So, let's define our positions," Daniel suggested. "You two won't be in combat and you won't willingly compromise security."
"No way do I want to sign up for the military. I'm not enlisting, and no way is Jim getting forced back in. I wouldn't do that even for Section," Blair added. Jack narrowed his eyes in confusion for a second, but Hammond quickly agreed.
"That's fine, son. You and Ellison can both take civilian positions. Our main interest is in having you train others. We do, however, require full confidentiality agreements."
Blair waved his hand at that. "Whatever. Man, secrets are not so secretive in this whole covert ops world, but I'm not going to be the one telling anyone anything."
"Blair, that means you can't use any of your research to publish," Daniel said seriously, and Blair stopped when he saw the curiously pained expression on Daniel's face.
"Oh man. Your life's work... you can't publish any of it," Blair said with a grimace. "Man, that seriously sucks."
"It'll be the same for you," Daniel warned, and Blair smiled at the concern in the other scientist's face.
"No problem. I write about my work in Cascade with the PD. I never have been able to take my primary thesis to any journals, but I can write a paper on anything; that's how I got into working on victimization." Blair didn't add that Section had set him up for that life.
"And now that you won't be working in Cascade, will you be equally happy without being able to publish at all?" Hammond asked just as seriously.
Blair stared at the man, and that little feeling of panic was back. "No way. No, I'm not going to spend my life underground in some secret facility. Man, I want to go home." Blair looked to Jim for backup on this one.
Jim was nodding. "We don't have a problem working for you. Blair can train Sentinels in Cascade, but we aren't going to disappear like Jackson here did," Jim said firmly.
"Jackson disappeared?" Blair asked, suddenly concerned. He so had not gotten the feeling that Daniel had been forcibly recruited, but now...
Daniel obviously knew what Blair was thinking. "I stood in front of a room and argued that aliens built the pyramids. Trust me, the disappearing was all about me saving face," he said wryly. "I was such a kid that I actually believed that people would listen just because I was telling the truth."
"Man, not smart," Blair sympathized.
"Sounds like someone I know," Jim said as he reached over and tugged Blair's ponytail.
"Yeah, that's Danny for you. He's the most brilliant man I know, but not a lot of common sense," Jack said fondly. "But Blair, you need to remember that people are interested in what you're doing. If you're in Cascade, there's a limit to how well we can protect you."
"I've read..." Blair stopped, not willing to talk specifically about what he'd read in Section documents. "Sentinels are protectors. If I'm working with military Sentinels, I'll be the most well-defended person in America. Old ladies with dangerous looking handbags won't be able to get near me."
Jack exchanged a look with Hammond, and now Blair just knew they knew something. "We need Sentinels who can go off-world, and that means going through the gate with them," Hammond said.
"Cool," Blair quickly answered, and Jack rolled his eyes.
"Look, kid, these men and women are going to be relying on your training and they'll die if you don't take this seriously."
Blair had stood up before he even registered Jim's grip on his shoulder. "Don't go there. You think I would ever short-change a Sentinel just because I think you're an asshole? No way. No fucking way. They're tribal warriors... they're watchmen patrolling the boundaries of the tribe, no matter how big that tribe gets. Their lives are hard enough without getting used like chess pieces on a board, so don't even try to tell me I don't take this seriously."
"Chief, just calm down," Jim said, and Blair found himself pulled back into Jim's chest and held.
"O'Neill, you're an idiot if you think Blair wouldn't give his best. But how many Sentinels are we talking about? From the sounds of it, you don't exactly want to set up an assembly line."
"To start with, two or three."
"Blair," Jim asked, "how long would that take?"
Blair thought about that. His work with Jim had taken years, but the research Section had done suggested that with a stable bond, a Sentinel was functional within weeks. Functional, but not at a level with Jim, not at first. Two of Section's Sentinels had numbers comparable to Jim's. Blair mentally reviewed those files. "I would need to work with them before they had a guide, explain what the senses are, how they affect daily life."
"I'll need to be there," Jim quickly added. He remembered when Blair had been working with Alex and the growing discomfort he'd felt until Section had murdered the woman and left her body in the courtyard of Rainier.
"They need a wide range of people to choose from," Blair said as he chewed his lip. "Simmons just wanted to pair Sentinels to other soldiers, but no way. People can't make life-partner choices based on what works best for the boss." Blair crossed his arms and dared Jack to argue with that one. He didn't.
"We have a lot of scientific expeditions: botanical, anthropological, astrological, archaeological," Sam said. The Sentinels would meet scientific and military personnel, and they would all be cleared for the program."
"And if two men or two women make a connection?" This time Blair looked right at General Hammond.
"Son, the military has been ignoring what Sentinels and companions did since long before you were born. No one is going to say anything."
"Oh, some might try, they just won't try for long once I find out about it," Jack promised with a dangerous smile. "So, what schedule are we looking at?" Jack asked again.
"I meet with them and work with them for a few days up front, maybe a week. They go to different posts and interact with a lot of people until they settle into pairs on their own," Blair said firmly. "Then I can work with the pairs, maybe a week-long session every two to four months."
"That's it?" Jack looked confused.
"The senses are natural. I have exercises that I can teach the guides to walk the Sentinels through and some tests to identify any weak areas like zoning during flashing lights, but yeah, that's it. Now do you see why this whole thing is idiotic? I have no idea what you've been doing to 'train' your Sentinels, but I'm thinking they'd be better off if you just got out of their way and let them figure it out on their own."
"Chief, I think you might be underestimating yourself," Jim interrupted. "General Hammond, Blair has a habit of just mentioning things in passing that end up being incredibly valuable to my control. After the pairs are settled in, you may want to have a longer term training session set up as a series of training ops."
Hammond nodded thoughtfully. "That's fair. We can set up a series of trainings."
"Man, that still leaves a lot of time unaccounted for," Blair pointed out. "I mean, a week at intake, a week at two and four months, and two weeks at the six month mark. Out of 24 weeks, I'm only working with the Sentinels for five weeks at the most. We could go home to Cascade," Blair argued as he rested his hands on Jim's arms. Jim held him tightly, and Blair watched as Jack and Hammond traded looks.
Jack looked back at them first. "You could work with the Sentinels individually. Three Sentinels would give you 15 weeks of work, and if you're anything like Danny, the extra eight or nine weeks would vanish under all that paper you academic types love to read and write on."
"No," Blair said firmly. "No way. I'm not having my whole life hijacked. If Section really has pulled out..."
"They have," Hammond said quickly. "The President has confirmation on that from both the NID and FBI as well as from Section directly."
Blair nodded, suddenly uncomfortable at the thought of not having Section there in the background, which was an issue he was so going to have to work through in meditation... possibly therapy. Blair strangled a quick and inappropriate need to laugh as he considered what type of therapist must have clearance to work with these people. The therapist was probably as crazy as the patients. "Okay, so someone's going to hijack our lives. Man, my vote goes to whoever hijacks it the least," Blair said firmly. "And that means Jim gets to work at least part time with Major Crimes."
"Chief, that isn't really--"
"No," Blair said firmly, refusing to let Jim say it. "I know you. You need to serve and protect, that's what you do. And if we were going on an active unit, that would be how you protected your tribe, but you are not going to get pushed into the background here, and I don't care what the government needs out of me."
"Is he always this pushy and annoying?" Jack asked with a sigh. Strangely his gaze quickly slid from Blair to Daniel.
"Yep," Jim said fondly.
Jack and Hammond exchanged a long look. Hammond spoke first. "It's theoretically possible, but you have to understand that any attempt to insert you back into your life in Cascade is going to come with a fairly high price." Blair narrowed his eyes at Hammond and waited for the other shoe to drop. He was really tired of dropping shoes at this point. "Section will continue with your security in return for some alien tech."
This time Sam spoke up. "The technology they requested isn't dangerous, but with the resources Section has, we don't know what they might reverse engineer."
"You mean, as opposed to what we reverse engineer?" Daniel asked, and this was obviously an old sore spot for them.
"Danny," Jack warned.
"This is not the time," Jack said firmly.
Daniel just rolled his eyes. "Yes, you see, Blair, there are those who feel that if we go out there and just tell people we represent the entire Earth, we don't actually have to share the technology we find with anyone else, even our allies."
"Section is not an ally," Jack almost yelled. "I don't care who's running the show over there or what they've told the President, the man is an idiot if he thinks we can play nice with Section."
"Colonel!" General Hammond ordered Jack down with a single word, and Jack subsided with a few last mutters.
"Section will protect you, we will pay for that protection with the tech," Hammond repeated. "It would allow you to reenter your life in Cascade, but with Section still watching you..."
Hammond didn't finish, but Blair could tell exactly where he was going anyway. They'd be on two leashes. Blair traded worried looks with Jim. These people added a whole new meaning to Machiavellian.
"You see why you're better off staying here?" Jack asked.
"Blair, I know this is hard, but it's not as if you'd be cut off from your friends and colleagues," Daniel argued earnestly. "You'd have free access to phones and Internet. There's an apartment free near my place, not that I'm ever there, but it'd be nice to have a neighbor who'd save my books if the complex caught on fire."
Blair closed his eyes, trying to just find a space inside his own head to think this through. He wished, just once, that Nikita would have just told them what game she was playing.
"Look, kid, you do this, and Section is still going to have a hold on you. They take you, and there's no promise we'll ever find you again." Jack said it so seriously that Blair was surprised into opening his eyes. Jack was leaning forward with his elbows on the table.
Slowly, Blair started shaking his head. "No. No way are they going to pick us up again. They got what they wanted out of me. Shit. They have my dissertation, my notes, they observed my interaction with Jim for years. They fucking used me to train their Sentinels, and now that they can't get any more out of me, they're trading me for a new, shinier toy. Damn it. Why didn't I see this?" Blair asked as he silently cursed himself.
"One that doesn't fling his shit?" Jack asked, perfectly deadpan. Blair glared at the man, but he just couldn't keep it up for long. Shit, Nikita had traded them away like an old car, and Blair suddenly didn't even have the energy to care.
"Dr. Sandburg, Detective Ellison, are you ready to risk your lives and freedom on that assumption?"
Jim answered first. "Sir, we've lived with that risk for years now. If anything, I'm more comfortable now because Blair's right, they've gotten what they want."
"And if they decide they don't want anyone else to have access to that information?" Jack asked.
Blair swallowed heavily and looked at Jim. He was man enough to admit that he might be totally fucking wrong and signing their death warrants. Jim shrugged. "They would have put a bullet in the back of our heads and left us on the floor with Tobias. Chief, you're right. We just got traded."
"So, do we have a deal, gentlemen?" Hammond asked.
Blair looked up at Jim. They hadn't talked about salaries or schedules or even asked Simon if this would work, but Hammond wanted an answer now.
"Yes, sir, I think we do," Jim answered for them.
"Good of you two to show up again," Simon said as he met them at the door to the loft. "And next time, find someone else to pick up your mail. Your neighbor called 911 on me. The guys at the precinct are still giving me shit about that."
"Mrs. Pitman?" Blair asked as he dropped his bag in his attempt to fish the key out of his pocket. Simon already had his own key to the loft out, and Jim just thanked god he didn't have to try for his own key. He didn't have a free hand, and after three days of physically requalifying, he didn't have the energy to try fight with his bags. Hell, he'd been too tired to do more than fall asleep on Blair in an aborted effort to have sex. Carolyn would have castrated him if he'd fallen asleep on her that often.
"Is that the deaf old bat who keeps leaving rotting garbage in the hall?" Jim asked wearily as Simon opened the door.
"That's the one," Blair agreed. "She's really a nice woman, Simon." Jim gave Blair a sharp look. "Fine, so she has a few issues," Blair admitted.
"Issues? The woman is a racist," Simon growled as Jim pushed the door closed with his shoulder.
"That would be one of her issues. Oh man, just don't mention the Shoah unless you really want to hear some scary stuff. I'm thinking the woman was married to a Nazi."
"I think she was one," Jim said as he dropped his suitcase and then draped his garment bag over the back of the couch.
Simon glared at it. "For someone who got called out for some mysterious national emergency, you packed well."
"That's new," Blair said mysteriously as he headed for the refrigerator, and Jim glared at Blair. He really hadn't wanted to get into this tonight, but now Simon was giving Jim a look that made it clear he was not leaving until he had the whole story. Unfortunately, Jim was never going to be able to give him the whole story.
"Simon, you are a god among men," Blair said gratefully as he held up two bottles of beer that Jim knew hadn't been there when they'd left. Blair brought him one, and Jim smiled at his partner before taking a drink.
Simon snorted. "Stop changing the topic."
Bracing himself, Jim reached over and unzipped the front of the garment bag to show the dress uniform inside. Simon didn't even bother to say anything as he just waited with his arms crossed.
"Oh man, you should see him in it," Blair said with a wink, and Jim just thanked god that Simon was ignoring Blair as being his normal borderline-inappropriate self because Jim really only wanted to have one major conversation tonight.
"Detective?" Simon finally asked.
"It's a long story, Simon." Jim just headed for the chair and collapsed into it, trying not to notice how sore his left thigh was. Qualifying had seemed much easier a decade ago. "Let's just say this was more convenient than having someone randomly reactivate my commission every few months."
"Shit." Simon sat heavily on the arm of the couch. "When you were gone so long, I called Sandburg's friend at the university. He said there was some strange chatter in the covert communities about Cascade, but I was hoping that for once you two had managed to duck when the shit hit the fan."
Jim glanced over at Blair, and the kid lost it, laughing either at the memory of Jack O'Neill splattered with shit or just because they were so exhausted that everything was funny. Even Jim had to chuckle.
"All right, whatever you two hens are cackling about, I don't want to know. What I want to know is how this is going to affect you two. Are you leaving Cascade?"
"We're committed to eight weeks a year, Simon, unless something goes horribly wrong," Jim shrugged.
"Something like... wait, I don't want to know," Simon quickly added, holding his hand up.
"For once, it's not me; it's him," Jim said as he pointed his beer bottle at Blair. Blair mouthed the word 'traitor' at him, but all was fair in love and dealing with Simon.
Simon pinned Blair with his gaze, and Blair rolled his eyes. "Fine, so it's me this time. Last time covert ops people were sniffing around, it was so your fault," Blair said with a finger poke Jim's direction. Jim couldn't exactly argue.
"Sandburg," Simon said darkly.
"The Air Force has three Sentinels. And man, they so do not know what to do with them. I mean, monumental levels of stupidity, Simon."
Jim leaned back and listened to Blair weave his obfuscations. The Air Force commanded the SGC, but the first three Sentinels would be from three different branches, and they hadn't even been picked yet. The poor suckers didn't even know they were Sentinels, but Jim would be explaining the joys of waking up to the sound of the neighbor's dog's stomach growling. And he'd have that conversation before they agreed to the training that brought their senses online.
"Stupidity is the norm for the military, Sandburg," Simon pointed out dryly.
"Whatever. Turns out the Air Force and half the world have copies of my not-for-publication dissertation."
"Shit. And they picked Jim up," Simon cursed. "Because of your dissertation. Damn it, Sandburg, you said that thing would be buried so deep Jimmy Hoffa wouldn't ever see it."
Jim was almost touched at how angry the captain was, except that he was directing that anger at Blair, which made Jim more than a little uncomfortable. An urge to get up and shove Simon right out of the loft warred with his general apathy and sore body. A twinge in his left leg settled it, and Jim decided to let Blair fight his own battles.
"This is so not my fault. Jim sent someone a copy... and then my mother did, and the person she probably sent it to was a publisher who wanted to take it to press, and the NID... never mind," Blair dismissed the whole mess with a wave of his hand, and Simon went from angry to confused in one second flat. Jim hid a smile behind his beer bottle. "Look, that's water under the bridge. The Air Force just needs someone to come in every few months and work with these guys, help them get settled before the military gets their senses so screwed up they can't smell their way to a cookie factory."
"Simon, you remember that friend of Blair's who was murdered on campus a couple of years back?"
Simon nodded. "Bad case all around." Suddenly Simon's eyes narrowed, and Jim really wished he had not brought that up because Simon was sharp... he was very sharp, and Jim just did not need him making connections here.
Jim shook his head, "I don't know anything about the shooter, Simon. My point was that all that week I felt uncomfortable and cranky. Hell, Blair came home one day, and I didn't recognize his smell. I thought he was an intruder and I put a gun in his face."
"You what?" Simon was on his feet, and Jim had to hide another smile behind a poker face. Simon might grump and grouch, but he cared about Blair more than he would ever admit.
"Chill out, Simon," Blair immediately stepped in. "It's not like he did anything other than scare the piss out of me and then apologize for about a month. Man, he's welcome to stick his gun in my face again if it gets me a week straight of fresh donuts delivered to my room every morning. Besides, it was a territory thing. Two Sentinels... they need to look each other in the eye, check each other out, you know."
"Two dogs sniffing each other's butts?" Simon interpreted, and Jim turned his coldest glare onto Simon. Unfortunately the captain was immune. He just looked back with amusement making his lips twitch. "So, Blair is doing the work with the Sentinels, and you're there to sniff butts and threaten them," Simon checked.
"Simon, it's late and my shitty mood is getting shittier by the second," Jim warned him.
"We can talk tomorrow," Simon said as he headed for the door. "I'm glad you two are back, and we can figure out something to do with scheduling in the morning." He paused by the garment bag and pulled the plastic up a bit. "Jim, is this your uniform?"
"I thought you left the service a captain."
"I got promoted, and Simon, that really is a story you do not want to hear." For a second, Simon stood by the couch fingering the plastic on the bag and looking concerned.
"Jim, if you need anything."
"Simon, it's fine. These men... they could be me. I can't say I'm thrilled about having to put my cases on hold every few months, but when I compare that to letting some kid end up in an insane asylum because no one knows how to help him with his senses, it's a fair trade." Jim pushed himself up and realized that he meant that. He wasn't just responsible for Cascade anymore. The Sentinels he and Sandburg would teach would have to protect the Earth. Simon, Daryl, Naomi, Henri, Steven, Joel... everyone they cared about would rely on the SGC and the teams to keep the world free.
Simon nodded, still not looking happy, but willing to accept that. "So, I'm going to have to share you with one more department," Simon said with a disgusted look in Blair's direction. "I just hope Peterson over in Vice realizes that any time you take off is coming off his scheduled time."
"Love you, too, man," Blair told Simon, but he came and stood next to Jim's and leaned against him.
"You two," Simon said with a resigned shake of his head. "I'll see you tomorrow. And get some sleep; you both look ready to collapse." And with that, Simon headed out the door.
"I hate not telling him," Blair said softly as he slipped a hand around Jim's waist, and Jim let his arm drape over Blair's shoulders.
"Me too, Chief, but he doesn't need to be in the middle of this."
Blair just nodded. "I'm wiped. You ready for bed?"
Jim nodded absent-mindedly, annoyed as something teased the edge of his senses. Walking over to the balcony doors, he slid them open and scanned the street until he saw her leaning against a car far down the street.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"Our escort tonight is a special one, Chief. Say 'hi' to Nikita."
"Aw, fuck. Man, I am too tired. There is a one kidnapping per month rule on this guide," Blair said as he leaned into Jim's side.
Jim could see Nikita smile from two blocks away, so she obviously either had the loft bugged or she was using a directional mike. "I'm not here to do anything other than make sure others who are watching know that you're important enough to warrant personal attention," she said so softly that a person standing next to her on the street would have strained to hear her, but Jim could hear clearly. He repeated Nikita's words as Blair studied the black night unable to even see the car that Nikita was leaning against.
"You're going to keep trading our services for tech until... until what?" Blair asked into the night. Jim flinched. If he had to face harsh truths, he'd rather do it on a little more sleep and maybe a home-cooked meal.
"Until I can't get any more out of them, and then I'll protect you for free, but don't tell them that," Nikita said with a small shrug. "It's funny, but they're still trying to protect their bit of turf... their country, their constituency. It's my job to make sure the pieces fit together, and the tech will help keep things in balance. However, that doesn't make you two expendable. I can't help them up there. I can only make sure they have the pieces they need to get that job done." Nikita looked up at the barely visible stars and the pale moon struggling to shine through the heavy clouds. Jim repeated the words for Blair, feeling odd at having such an intimate conversation across two blocks. If there were watchers, they were getting all of this.
Blair frowned at Jim in confusion when Jim finished. "But does she—" Blair just stopped.
"Chief, I can't pretend to understand her," Jim said. He looked back toward the street, and the car was pulling away from the curb, and Nikita was nowhere in sight. "She's gone."
Blair sighed and moved so that he was in front of Jim, holding him, and Jim rested his cheek on Blair's head, focusing on the scent of his exhausted guide and the steady beat of his heart. "Do you think one day we'll be able to look back and say, 'Hey, this is where we made the right decision,' or 'This is where we fucked up and we should have run for Peru?'" Blair asked softly.
"I don't know, Chief." Jim just stood with Blair in his arms for several minutes. The night was so quiet that Jim could track each person who wandered near the building. Mrs. Pitman was down by the garbage cans muttering in German. A couple of kids were spraying graffiti on the next building over. A man was sitting on a bench turning the pages of a newspaper. "Do you think we're doing the right thing? Right now, no trying to predict the future or outguess Section. Are we doing the right thing?" Jim asked.
Blair didn't answer right away, but his hands tightened around Jim's waist. "I want to help them. I can't stand the thought of what it must feel like to be called obsolete and aggressive and to be left in a zone because someone labeled it a seizure."
Jim knew that Blair was thinking of him, of what would have happened if Jim's senses hadn't gone back offline after Peru. When Jim had first come out of the Army, he was so angry that he couldn't even imagine what that type of disability would have done to him. And if the Army had ordered him to 'bond' the way the NID man had implied they ordered their Sentinels to... he would have eaten his gun.
"Yeah, I think we're doing the right thing," Blair eventually said.
"Then we don't worry about the rest, Chief. We're doing the same thing everyone else is: building a life and hoping some random event doesn't tear it down before we can finish. We'll be fine." Blair turned his head so that his face was buried in Jim's chest, and Jim knew his partner was hiding his fear. Jim just held on a little tighter and stared up at the stars. He thought they were doing the right thing, too, and if time proved them wrong, it wouldn't be the first time the universe laughed at Jim Ellison's expense. As long as he got to keep Blair, he would just laugh right back.