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The Raptor Chronicles

Part 2: The Path to Exile

 

By Denim n Lace

 

 

   Disclaimer and Author Notes    Part 1: Rebirth    Part 2: The Path to Exile     Part 3: Baptism by Fire

 


 

As Blair Sandburg looked back over the events of the day, he couldn’t quite believe that so much in his life could change in so little time. 

 

When he’d woken up in the early hours of the morning, he had been in a hotel on Earth.  He had been alone.  He had basically been all right with that.  After all, he had essentially been on his own for most of his life.  Now, as he waited for sleep to claim him again, he found himself in his new quarters, on board a starship.  The change of geography was, of course, far less important than the change that had him wide awake and staring at the ceiling, in spite of his exhaustion. 

 

The important change was that he was no longer alone.  He should never be alone again.  Today his childhood dreams had been become reality. 

 

Today, he had found his Sentinel.

 

Blair twisted his head to stare through the darkness at the wall that separated him from James Ellison.  It was an odd thing really.  Blair had always been a man who had appreciated his own space.  He could ‘make do’ with anything, of course.  His unconventional childhood had left him with the ability to cope with pretty much anything, but as an empath, he’d always appreciated having his own space.  Yet tonight, Blair Sandburg found himself wishing that the wall that separated him from his Sentinel would simply disappear.

 

Blair took a deep breath and then smothered the urge to sigh.  He grimaced irritably at his own folly and forced himself to close his eyes.  He and Ellison had to learn to be apart from each other, and the sooner they started the better for both of them.  They were very different people.  They had different tasks to perform on this ship.  They simply couldn’t be together all the time.

 

No matter how much it hurt to be apart.

 

Blair groaned and flipped himself over onto his stomach, so that he could bury his face in the pillow.  When he’d found himself confronted by the living incarnation of his life long dream, he’d been overjoyed.  When he’d realized that said dream needed him, he’d been ecstatic.   His childhood fantasy of being truly necessary to someone like Jim Ellison had made the decision to help the stranger for him.  He hadn’t really needed to think about it.

 

Unfortunately, right at that moment, Blair was wishing that he’d thought about the question of whether he truly wanted to be totally joined to another person with his head, rather than with his heart.

 

If he’d thought about it logically, he would have realized that by forging an unbreakable bond with another person, he would be creating a gaping wound in his own barriers.  It had taken him a lifetime to learn how to maintain his barriers against the emotions of others.  Now there was a hole in that barrier that he simply couldn’t plug.  He knew that with time and practice, he would learn to grant Ellison the access he needed, while at the same time keeping the emotions of others from eating at his own mind.  What he hadn’t anticipated though, was that it in the mean time, the ‘hole’ he had created for Ellison would hurt.

 

Even the short walk from the Med. Center to the turbo lift had been left him with a splitting headache.  Logically, he knew that the flashes of strong emotion that he was experiencing had absolutely nothing to with him.  Unfortunately, the effort of constantly pushing these alien thoughts and emotions aside was leaving him wired and tense.  The only time he seemed to be capable of controlling it was when Ellison was in direct contact with him.  Any physical connection intensified an empathic connection.  When Ellison was touching him, it was easy to view the two of them as a single entity.  Even though Jim Ellison pushed emotions onto him, he was aware of where Ellison’s emotions were coming from.  For some reason, it did not bother him in the slightest that Ellison’s moods effected his own.  When Ellison was touching him, he felt connected and in control.  He could simply extend his mental barriers to encompass the pair of them, and that kept both himself and Jim safe, and everyone else out.  Unfortunately, as soon as they were out of the Med. Center, Jim Ellison had declared that he needed to start getting a grip on this Sentinel stuff, and he had insisted that they make their way to their new quarters without actually touching each other.

 

He understood where Ellison was coming from.  Truly he did.  It had just been hard for him, that was all.  And it hadn’t helped that no sooner had they reached their rooms, than Ellison had ordered him to go to bed, as they were both going to need their rest.  With that, Ellison had flung himself down on the sleeping platform that lay in the corner of the Security Officer’s quarters and had presented Blair with his back.  Blair had stood staring at his prone Sentinel for several long minutes, before turning and retreating through the door into the adjoining room.

 

Ellison’s dismissal had hurt, and Blair wanted to find out what had caused it.  He had the means of course, the bond was a two-way deal.  Blair was the functional empath of the pair, and as such, knew that Ellison would be incapable of hiding anything from him if he were to push.  Unfortunately, Blair was afraid of what he would find, so the bond that flowed from his mind and heart into Ellison’s felt like a barren wasteland that stretched out for miles, when only hours earlier, it had pulsed and throbbed like a life-line for him.

 

It was this sudden emptiness that had him frightened.  He had thought of nothing beyond Ellison’s survival when he had opened himself up.  He hadn’t considered the fact, that by merging his thoughts and emotions totally with another human being, he would be making himself totally vulnerable to them.  He had given a total stranger unlimited access to himself.  What if Ellison was truly only interested in his own survival?  What if he took the grounding that Blair gave him, but chose to deny the empath the emotional support he needed? 

 

What if Ellison was rejecting him?

 

To Sandburg’s horror, he felt tears welling up in his eyes, and he pressed his face harder into his pillow, silently ordering himself not to cry.  He wouldn’t… he couldn’t allow himself to show how frightened he was.  He wouldn’t give Ellison that power over him too.  Ruthlessly, he clamped down on the bond.  He would let nothing through.  He would not let Ellison know how miserable he was.  He just couldn’t.  He did have some pride too, goddamn it!

 

This thought had no sooner flickered through his mind, than the sudden, soft ‘whoosh’ of the door mechanism made him jump.  He wiped desperately at his eyes and then raised himself up onto his elbows to look toward the door that joined his own quarters to Jim’s.

 

“Blair?”  With the light of the Security Chief’s quarters behind him, Blair could not see Jim Ellison’s face, but his voice sounded frantic.  “Blair, what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing.” Blair said flatly.  “Go back to sleep.”  Blair rolled over quickly, so that Ellison couldn’t see his face and shut his eyes tightly.  Oh, damn it!  Could this get any worse?  He’d shut down the connection so that Jim wouldn’t feel his misery, but the Sentinel had picked up on it anyway.  Of course he would.  He was a Sentinel.  He’d either heard Blair’s sniffling, or smelled his tears.  And anyway, where the hell did he get off, acting like he was all worried about Blair, when he hadn’t even wanted to talk to him earlier.

 

“No.”  Ellison practically snarled, and Blair heard the man advancing quickly into the room.  Blair screwed his eyes shut tighter and wished hard that the other man would just leave.  “Something is wrong.  I can’t feel you.  You just… went away.” Strong hands were suddenly gripping Blair’s shoulder and turning him over onto his back. “You’re all tensed up.”  Ellison’s voice sounded frantic again and gentle fingers brushed against his closed eyes.  To Blair’s surprise, Ellison made a noise like a wounded animal as he touched the moisture that remained on the empath’s face.  “Blair?  What’s wrong?  Are you sick?  Do you need me to get you a Doctor?”

 

Blair sighed and forced his eyes to slit open.  He couldn’t see very much in the gloom of his darkened room, but he could tell that Ellison was leaning right over him.  The man sounded genuinely worried.  “I just have a headache, that’s all.” he said in a very small voice.

 

“Then why can’t I feel you?”  Ellison’s voice took on the plaintive note of a small child deprived of something that it wanted.  Now Blair was really confused.  How could Ellison dismiss him out of hand, and then be worried by the lack of a connection.  The man was in a room by himself!  Surely the Sentinel’s control couldn’t have slipped that badly in the few moments that Blair had clamped down on his end.  Cautiously, Blair released the chokehold he’d taken on the connection that bound them to gauge what was going on with Ellison.  The resulting backwash of absolute terror drove the air from his lungs.

 

Instinctively, Blair cried out against the fear that had driven through him as the bond began to flow again, and the young man found himself being snatched up by strong arms and crushed into a broad chest.

 

“It’s all right, Blair.” Ellison’s voice sounded harsh as he whispered against Blair’s ear, and Blair couldn’t be sure of which of them the reassurances were for.  “I can feel you again.  You’re all right.”

 

Now that the bond was flowing properly again, Blair could feel the depth of Jim’s caring for him.  This time, Blair didn’t try to fight the tears when he felt his eyes start to sting.  Ellison just held him tighter, and continued to croon nonsensical reassurances, his distress deepening again with the fresh evidence of Blair’s misery. 

 

For several minutes, Blair just lay in his Sentinel’s arms, allowing the bigger man’s physical proximity to ease the tension headache that the other man had caused by putting distance between them.  Now that they were connected again, Blair could feel Ellison’s strong emotions in relation to his smaller Guide.  His earlier rejection made no sense in the light of this affection.   Blair knew that they needed to get this cleared up, but it took him a few goes to find his voice again.

 

“Why?” Blair demanded against the larger man’s throat.

 

“Why what?” Ellison asked, his own voice sounding strained.

 

“Why didn’t you want me to stay with you earlier.” Blair whispered.  “You hurt me.  I don’t understand why.”

 

Ellison went utterly still at his guide’s words, and then proceeded to curl even tighter around the younger man.

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Ellison whispered back to him.  “I couldn’t let you stay with me earlier.  I needed to ground myself on you again so bad.  I was afraid that if you stayed in the same room with me for even a minute, I’d lose the plot again.”

 

Now Blair was really lost.  “Jim, man, if you needed to connect, all you had to do was tell me.  You’re newly bonded, big guy.  I mean, admittedly, I’m trying to work all of this out as we’re going along here, but it makes sense that you’re going to have trouble setting your base levels and then maintaining them until you’ve had a bit of practice at it.  I mean, I was surprised enough that you wanted to give up contact while we walked to the Security office.  You could have knocked me down with a feather when you sent me away without with out reconnecting.  Why’d you do that, if you were having trouble with your senses?”

 

“Because you don’t deserve to have some basket case pawing at you all the time!” Ellison replied gruffly.  “You saved my life Sandburg!  When you’re around me, I can actually make myself believe that everything will be okay!  You chose to save a complete stranger, at the expense of your own freedom.  I wished that you’d never set eyes on me when I heard you say to the Captain that you would need me for the rest of your life because we’d bonded.  I just…” Ellison trailed off, and Blair could feel his pain through the bond.  “I’ve read enough about empaths to know that a fully functional empath avoids physical contact with others as much as possible, because physical contact heightens empathic connection, and makes it difficult for the empath to separate their emotions from the emotions of others.  I didn’t want to hurt you, and I didn’t want to make you regret that you’d helped me.” Ellison trailed off again with a heart-heavy sigh. “I shouldn’t have come in here like this, but I couldn’t feel you in my head suddenly, and I thought there was something wrong.”

 

Blair Sandburg listened to his Sentinel’s speech with dawning horror.  The man didn’t understand.

 

“Jim,” Blair whispered gently, even as he brought his own arms up and around the other man.  “That is true of other empaths, and it’s true of me too, to a certain extent.  But that’s not how it is between me and you.  You might be newly bonded, and still having trouble getting your base levels set, but the same is true for me.  I’m newly bonded too, big guy.  And I might not have to worry about my senses, but this whole bonding process means that I have a hole in my empathic barriers that lets you sense me. But I need practice too.  At the moment, the only time I can make my shields work is when you’re touching me.  You are a part of me now.  It’s going to take some time to learn how to allow you in, while I’m keeping everyone else out.” Blair drew back and carefully disengaged himself from Jim’s arms so that he could look up into his Sentinel’s face.  Blair couldn’t really make out details in the darkness, but he had no doubt that Jim could see him quite clearly, in spite of the dark. 

 

“Jim, you may have been trying to be noble by sending me away, man, but all you did was hurt me too.  It seems that this Sentinel/Guide relationship is a symbiotic one.  Listen to your instincts, Jim.  As a Sentinel, you already know on some level what it is that you need.  Don’t try to fight that.  The chances are that meeting your needs, will help meet my needs too.”

 

“I really didn’t mean to hurt you, Blair.” Jim sounded stricken.  “I just don’t want to make this any harder on you.”

 

“The only way you’re gonna make this hard on me, man, is if you push me away again.  I meant what I said, you know.  You’re a part of me now.  I can’t leave you.  I wouldn’t want to.  You have to trust that.”  Blair allowed himself to stroke the bigger man’s arms with the palms of his hands as he spoke, and he sent feelings of peace and reassurance through the connection as he did so.

 

Jim looked down on him for a long moment.  “I,” Ellison trailed off for a long moment, before determinedly forcing himself on, “I’m not good at trust, Chief, and trusting someone to stay is the hardest thing there is for me.  No one ever has.”

 

“No one ever has before.” Blair corrected firmly.  “We’re joined, Ellison.  Neither one of us can get away from that. But it’s okay to feel nervous man.  I’ll make you trust me.  By still being here tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on and so forth until we’re both old and gray.”  Blair broke off then and grinned at the other man mischievously.  “Well, at least until I’m old and gray.  You’ll just be old.”

 

The silence that settled over the darkened room in the wake of Blair’s small jest had a surprised edge to it. Obviously not many people felt comfortable enough with Ellison to kid around with him.  Suddenly Jim let out a small snort of laughter, and his voice, which had until this point been tight with misery and fear, took on a decidedly droll edge.  “Watch the hair jokes kid, or you won’t be around to find out if you go gray.”

 

“I’m terrified.” Blair smirked.

 

“Everyone one else always has been.” Ellison replied seriously.

 

“Yeah, well, in case it slipped your attention, I’m not much like everyone else.” Blair smiled wryly.

 

“No.” Ellison agreed steadily.  “You’re not anything like anyone else.”

 

Blair actually felt his cheeks become hot under the steady, assessing gaze that he could sense more than he could see.  For a long moment, they both remained silent, and Blair allowed himself the luxury of basking in the warmth of Ellison’s affection for him.  He could feel it blazing away through the hand that Ellison still had supporting his Guide’s neck.

 

After a moment, Blair cleared his throat, somewhat self-consciously.  “Ahhh, so.  Your senses have been acting up, huh, man?”

 

“Yeah.” Ellison grimaced.  “Pretty much since I took my hand off your arm outside the Med. Centre.”

 

“What’s giving you the most grief?” Blair asked curiously.

 

“Hearing.” Jim grimaced, then blushed.  “I’ve, err, been listening for you… so I’d know you were okay.  But I keep over extending.”

 

“Overextending how?” Blair demanded

 

“Let’s put it this way,” Ellison grimaced in embarrassment, “I found out more than I ever wanted to know about the Maguato mating cycle from a conversation over in engineering.”

 

“Jim!” Blair was torn between feeling excited and feeling appalled.  “Engineering is on the other side of the ship!”

 

Ellison shrugged again, and Blair could sense the older man’s discomfort.  “I know.” Ellison growled.  “And I can hear every damned thing that’s happening between here and there!”

 

“Is your hearing giving you trouble now?” Blair asked in concern.

 

“No.” Ellison sighed.  “I’m okay while I’m touching you.  But as soon as I let go.”

 

“Yeah.” Blair grimaced.  “Me too.”  Blair gnawed on his lip for a moment, before squinting up at his bond-mate’s shape through the gloom.  “Uhhh, don’t take this the wrong way or anything man, but I can only see one way for either of us to get any sleep tonight.”

 

“How’s that, Chief?” Ellison asked wearily.

 

“Umm, how would you feel about us sleeping together?” Blair asked in a rush.

 

“Sleeping together?” Ellison demanded tonelessly.

 

“OH!” Blair almost choked. “NO!  Not, sleeping together!  Just, you know, SLEEPING together.”

 

“Oh.” Ellison murmured.

 

“Yeah!” Blair nodded. “I mean, the only way I can see for either of us to get any sleep is if we maintain some sort of contact, you know?  And we can’t do that from separate rooms.”

 

“I can see that.” Ellison replied tentatively.

 

“Right!” Blair was warming to his subject now, “I mean, we’ve got a lot to do over the next few days, man.  We’ve got next to no time to get all of this sorted out, so we can’t afford to be waking up tired here!”

 

“That sounds reasonable.” Ellison agreed.

 

“Yeah!” Blair nodded again, “So we stay here, stay in contact with each other, get some sleep, and get to work first thing in the morning!”

 

“Okay, Chief.” Jim nodded.

 

“Really?” Blair asked in surprise as he peered through the darkness at the Sentinel.

 

“Really.” Blair could actually hear the smile in Jim Ellison’s voice.

 

“So, ah… you happy to stay here then?” Blair demanded.

 

“Shift over.” Ellison grunted in reply.  Blair scooted over as far as he could, and he felt a large body settling in beside him.

 

“You comfortable enough?” Blair asked nervously.

 

“Yes, Blair, I’m comfortable.” Jim’s slightly exasperated voice whispered back.  “You sure talk a lot for a guy going to sleep, here.”

 

“Oh.” Blair frowned and then shrugged.  “Sorry.  Ummm, well, Good night then, I guess.”

 

“Good night, Blair.” Ellison responded quietly.

 

Blair rolled over onto his side.  He was acutely aware of the warmth behind him that was his Sentinel.  This wasn’t what he usually had in mind when he suggested that someone share his bed with him, but it was still, nice.  For several long moments, Blair lay still, listening to Ellison breathing in the darkness, and focusing on the hand that was resting in the middle of his back.  He’d never felt so instantly comfortable with anyone as he was with Jim Ellison.

 

Suddenly the Sentinel sighed and shifted on the sleeping platform.  To Blair’s surprise, the larger man actually shifted closer, until he was spooned up behind the scientist.  Blair was rendered practically speechless though, when the larger man’s arm came around to encircle him and draw him in to Ellison’s chest. 

 

For a long moment, neither of them moved, and then both of them released twin sighs of relief.  This was a better idea, Blair mused.  Maximizing the contact between them made maintaining his barriers around them both so much easier, and, well, it kinda made him feel, safe.

 

“This okay, kid?” Ellison breathed in his ear, and Blair actually smiled.

 

“Yeah, man, this is fine.” he sighed contentedly.

 

“Good.” Ellison whispered.  “Go to sleep now, Chief.”

 

“’Kay.” Blair murmured as he relaxed into the warm, reassuring emotions that were ebbing backward and forward between them through the bond.  He really shouldn’t be thinking about sleep, Blair acknowledged somewhat guiltily as he felt himself beginning to drift.  He should really be thinking about how they were going to tackle this whole Sentinel Guide thing.

 

Safe and reassured, Blair was asleep before he could even decide where he wanted to start.

 


 

James Ellison’s first coherent thought was that he felt like crap.  While that hadn’t been an unusual feeling for him lately, what registered as unusual with him was the fact that his general feelings of crappiness didn’t spring from a sense that he was totally out of control.  It was more the type of crappiness that he experienced for about a week after a long, hard mission.  His next thought was that he could still hear the soft, reassuring thumping of Blair Sandburg’s heartbeat and feel the soothing warmth of the younger man’s body against his own hip.  Somehow, the second thought made the first infinitely more tolerable.

 

For long moments, Ellison was content to merely lie where he was, with his eyes closed, and wonder at why he felt so bad.  He could think of nothing strenuous that he had done the previous day to cause him to feel as though he’d gone one-on-one with an Orion.  After a while, it penetrated the Security Chief’s awareness that his young guide was up to something.  He could hear him scratching at something, and making thoughtful little noises under his breath.  Ellison had a vague memory of waking up in a half panic, because he could feel Sandburg moving away from him, and he had needed to find out what was wrong.  Gentle hands had petted his face and arms, and a soft voice had reassured him that everything was all right, that Blair wasn’t going far, that he’d be right back.  Blair’s heartbeat had sounded peaceful enough, so Ellison had allowed himself to relax again.  Now that he was awake fully, Ellison found himself curious enough about what had drawn the Guide from his sleep to actually open his eyes and investigate.

 

Blair Sandburg was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the bed, with one folded leg pressed firmly into Ellison’s own hip and side, and the other hanging out over the edge of the bed.  He was sitting hunched over, scribbling furiously onto a data pad.  He didn’t look very comfortable, Jim decided.  He was going to comment on this fact, when something else about his Guide’s appearance caught his attention, and caused him to frown.

 

“Sandburg,” Ellison began firmly, in spite of the huskiness in his voice that indicated his very recent awakening, “what’s that thing on your face?”

 

Sandburg looked up in surprise at the sound of the Sentinel’s voice and positively beamed at him, “Oh!  Hey, you’re awake!  How are you feeling this morning?” Then the young man broke off and an almost comical expression of bewilderment crossed his mobile features as Ellison’s question registered.  “Huh?” he queried as he raised a hand to touch at his face.  Ellison waited patiently, until understanding broke though the clouds of uncertainty that had darkened his young Guide’s expression. “Oh!” Sandburg chuckled lightly.  “They’re glasses, man.  Nothing to worry about.”

 

“I can see that they’re made of glass, Sandburg.” Ellison huffed, “I want to know what they’re doing on your face.”

 

“They help me to see.  My eyes don’t focus properly on their own.  And you didn’t answer my question.  How are you feeling?”

 

“I’m feeling like shit, actually.” Ellison snorted, then frowned up at Sandburg again.  “I know that children are regularly born with eyesight that isn’t so good, but I understand that the problem can be corrected shortly after birth.  Why wasn’t yours?”

 

Sandburg nodded at Ellison’s original comment.  “I’m not surprised that you don’t feel so good.  I’m betting that you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. Years, maybe.  It’s going to take more than one or two nights to get to a point where you aren’t exhausted anymore.  It’s going to take you weeks, I think, to start to feel refreshed after a full night’s sleep again.”

 

“You didn’t answer my question, this time, Junior.” Ellison growled.

 

“Hmmm?” Blair queried distractedly, before thinking back to the question being referred to and frowning.  “Oh.  Well, at the time I was born, my mother belonged to a cult that called themselves ‘Naturalists’.  I was registered in Federation Births as belonging to the movement.  The ‘Naturalists’ believed that humanity was getting away from its roots and tried to live as close to nature as possible.  They believe that all modern medicine is doing is detracting from the human body’s capacity to heal itself, so they don’t allow any invasive medical procedures.  An operation to fix my eyes would have been considered invasive.”

 

“Ooookay,” Ellison said slowly.  “So your family are ‘Naturalists’, and you chose a career in Starfleet Science.  That must have gone down well with your mother.”

 

“Nah, Mom was way over the ‘Naturalist’ phase by the time I decided that I wanted to study science.  By that point, she’d hit her ‘Vulcan’ stage, so she considered my decision to be ‘eminently logical’.” Blair shuddered slightly. “I’m really glad that she didn’t last long in following the Vulcan teachings.  Naomi was simply not designed to ignore her heart in favor of her head.  She was really hard to relate to when she was like that.”

 

“Wait.” Ellison said flatly as he sat up and glared at his young Guide in disbelief.  “Are you telling me that your mother left you blind on a whim?”

 

Blair sat back away from the larger man and looked decidedly taken aback at the question.  “I’m not blind,” Blair replied defensively.  “I might not see as well as some people, but I see O.K.  The glasses help.  Naomi wouldn’t have left me blind.”

 

“I see.” Ellison said flatly.  He didn’t, of course.  It seemed to Jim, that Blair’s mother had acted with almost criminal negligence.  And where the hell had the boy’s father been when all of this was going on?  Jim was just winding himself up to pursue that very question when he felt it.  A kind of emotional withdrawal through the bond.  Ellison looked at the younger man beside him sharply, and realized belatedly that the scientist was tensed up, as though he were expecting a blow of some type.  

 

It appeared that Blair didn’t want his Sentinel to be judging his birth family.  Jim couldn’t really understand that.  Most people would be sitting there saying, “Yes, Jim, it was a very irresponsible thing that my mother did to me.”  But then, they’d already established the fact that Blair wasn’t like most other people.  And it was just as well, really.  Most other people would have left Jim Ellison to rot in his own juices after being pounced on, and having him gnaw on their neck.  So Jim really couldn’t hold the fact that Blair Sandburg had a forgiving nature against him.

 

Instead, Jim reached out and cupped the back of his guide’s neck, forcing the younger man to look at him.  Jim felt Blair’s apprehension through the bond, and deeply regretted his harsh tone of a moment before.  He concentrated on sending his warm feelings of love and gratitude and acceptance through the bond to his Guide.  This whole ‘bond’ thing was so new to him.  He hoped that he wasn’t messing it up.

 

He evidently got it right, because almost immediately, Blair gifted him with that sweetly shy little smile that made Jim feel as though he were ten feet tall, and capable of moving mountains in the defense of this young man.  No one else had ever made him feel like this.  Not in his whole, miserable, lonely life.  Once again Jim was overwhelmed by the gift this kid had given him by choosing to save him.  Impulsively, Jim tugged at the back of the kid’s neck and drew him over into a crushing embrace.

 

Blair’s emotions sang at him through the bond.  The young man’s relief and thankfulness were enough to make Jim vow to himself that he would never again speak in censure of something that the kid’s family had done.

 

He’d just work on limiting their access to him.

 

In James Ellison’s view, based on the little bit that Blair had just said, and by the fear of rejection that the kid had demonstrated the night before, Blair’s family had been given a gift of incalculable value in Blair, and had not treated that gift with the reverence that it deserved.  Blair had come into his keeping now, and he would not be so careless.  However, the young scientist’s family still appeared to hold a place in his affections, and that gave them the power to hurt the Guide.  The Guide would not be hurt again.  Jim would not allow it.  Blair’s family evidently did not deserve him, so Jim felt utterly content in his decision to run interference against them. 

 

The Guide would be protected.

 

Jim suddenly stiffened and Blair pulled back sharply.  Jim could see the younger man’s surprise at the alarm that Jim had obviously broadcast through the bond.

 

“What’s wrong, Jim?” Blair demanded as he peered around, obviously trying to work out what had upset the older man.

 

“Are you still registered as a Naturalist?” Jim demanded.

 

“Sure.” Blair shrugged, his expressive eyes still reflecting his confusion.  “I mean, I could hardly be called a ‘pure’ follower of the cult, because of my job and all, but I can see their point about modern medicine’s stripping the body of its natural ability to heal…”

 

“When you said before that ‘Naturalists’ were against any form of invasive medical intervention, would that include life saving surgery?” Ellison’s voice was sharp with his growing concern.

 

“Yeah, sure, I guess.” Blair shrugged.  “I mean, it’s never something that’s bothered me overly, ‘what will be, will be’, you know? And I’ve made a career in working in really out of the way places, so if anything happened to me, I’d probably already be dead by the time help came anyway, so it’s really not something…”

 

Ellison cut off his young Guide’s nervous babbling again, his voice harsh and uncompromising.  “You can’t be a ‘Naturalist’ anymore.”

 

“Huh?” Blair stared up at him blankly for a half-second, before his wide blue eyes became suddenly, impossibly wider. “OH!” the younger man gasped, an almost comically disconcerted look crossing his face, “Right!  You’re right!  I mean, what affects me, affects you now!  I’m sorry! I hadn’t thought of that.  I should have.  Of course I can’t be a Naturalist anymore!  I should have thought.  I am sorry, Jim.”

 

“Blair.” Jim said firmly, catching hold of the younger man’s shoulders again and giving him a little shake to silence the horrified out-pouring of words.  “Blair, it’s okay!  I’m not angry!  I am worried about you though.  I don’t,” Jim broke off under the weight of emotion that washed over him at the mere thought of what he had to vocalize to his young Guide.  He drew a deep breath and forced himself to continue.  “I need to know that if anything happens to you - if I can’t protect you from something - that you’ll have every chance at survival.”

 

“I know, Jim.” Blair said quietly.  “I do know.  I can’t survive without you now, either.  I wouldn’t want to.  It’s never really mattered much to me one way or the other, but it does now, so I’ll have my records changed.  I promise.”

 

“Good.” Jim sighed in relief.  “How soon?”

 

“I’ll contact a lawyer at the first Star Base we stop at.” Blair promised.

 

“Why not now?” Jim demanded darkly, and Blair smiled in reassurance.

 

“Because it’s the kind of thing that I prefer to do face to face with someone, that’s why, and the Raptor has a fairly small crew.  We don’t have any lawyers on hand here, big guy” Blair chuckled.

 

“I want it done before we get into the neutral zone.” Ellison could hear the possessive, demanding tone in his own voice, and on one level cringed at it.  Unfortunately, the primitive, feral level of his instinctive-self was way too close to the surface, and that level of his personality was far more caught up in ensuring the safety of his Guide to worry about how he sounded to the younger man.  Fortunately, Blair’s smile just grew wider at the tone. 

 

“Sure, man.” He agreed amiably, and Ellison was inundated with feelings of reassurance through the bond.  The feral Sentinel within him practically purred at his young Guide’s easy submission to him.  James Ellison the Ranger was pleased at the younger man’s good sense in accepting that unexpected things happened out in space, and that the sooner the change was made, the better off they’d both be.  Jim, the man, was just blissed-out with the warmth being conveyed to him through the bond.  Jim felt a relieved smile begin to form on his face, and he reached out to gather his Guide to him once more.

 

To his extreme displeasure, the younger man pulled away from him.

 

“Oh, no, man.” Blair chuckled.  “We start to focus on the bond again, and we’ll be here all day.  In case you’ve forgotten, the Captain only gave us a week to get our shit together, and that’s really not enough time as it is.  We can’t afford to waste any of it.”

 

The feral Sentinel, who was already very close to the surface, was not at all pleased with this turn of events.  The feral Sentinel cared nothing for timelines.  It was newly bonded, and all that it wanted was the Guide.  It had been forced to live without said Guide for long enough.  It wanted the Guide, and it wanted the Guide now!

 

Fortunately though, the highly trained Starfleet Officer that resided within James Ellison’s psyche did understand the need for timelines, and this time he was able to clamp down on the urges of his instinct-driven self.  He couldn’t completely suppress his little sigh of disappointment though.

 

“Getting our shit together.” Jim grimaced, “Right.” Ellison forced himself to move into a cross-legged position directly in front of the Guide, so that their knees touched.  The tall Security Chief swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat as he thought about the pain that he’d forced himself to endure yesterday on the walk from the med. center to his quarters.  He didn’t really want to go through that again, but he acknowledged the need for them to be able to function separately.  “Any ideas on where we should start?” he asked evenly, even as he forced his body to relax.  It seemed that there were some advantages to being trained to withstand torture, after all.

 

“Well, yeah.” Blair grinned as he wriggled on his bottom a little so that his knees were resting more comfortably against his Sentinel’s.  “Some of us were actually working here this morning, while others of us were making like a wind tunnel.”

 

Ellison glanced sharply at the young man in front of him, but Blair simply looked back in wide-eyed innocence.  Jim focused on the bond for a second, and finally felt the mischievous undertones resonating through the younger man’s presence.  Jim allowed himself to relax when he felt that.  It was going to take some getting used to, this being teased business.  Most people just looked at Ellison and assumed that to tease was to invite death.  Blair had seen past his outward bluff to the loneliness of the man within, and had been determined to show his friendship in as many ways as was possible.

 

Ellison forced down a laugh at the younger man’s shot at him, and cocked an eyebrow at the younger man in reply.  "Note to Self,” Ellison tipped his head back and murmured to the ceiling after a moment.  “The Guide thinks that he’s funny.  Attempt to smile at the appropriate intervals.”

 

Sandburg snorted with laughter, and gave Ellison’s knee a hard slap in reply.  “Yeah, okay, you shit.” He chortled.  Only then did Jim allow himself the luxury of smiling at his bondmate.

 

“Alright, kid.” Ellison smiled, and was surprised to note that their goofing around had left him far more genuinely relaxed than he had been a moment before.  “What did you come up with?”

 

“Okay. Here’s what I’m thinking.” Blair drew a deep breath, and when his eyes refocused on Ellison from behind the glass lenses he wore perched on his nose, they were blazing with an intensity that was almost disconcerting for Ellison.  He’d never in his life had anyone so focused on him before.  “All of the reading I’ve done suggests that part of the gift of being a Sentinel lies in an enhanced memory.  A Sentinel takes in hundreds of times more information than an ordinary human being.  If they focused on it all at once, they’d lose the plot, right?”

 

“Right.” Ellison agreed darkly, thinking back to the recent days and months that he had endured before Blair.  A gentle touch to his knee drew him back before he could delve too deeply into those memories.  He raised his eyes to meet Blair’s concerned gaze, and sent his reassurance that he was all right to the younger man with both a lop-sided smile, and a ‘push’ at the bond.

 

Blair smiled quickly at him, before pushing on.  “So a Sentinel can choose what information they want to process and block the rest out.  That ‘ignored’ information doesn’t just go away though.  It’s still in the memory.  Early scientists did some memory tests with some of the last Sentinels and the information they garnered suggests that Sentinels have perfect recall.  I believe that Sentinel’s use a greater portion of their mind than other people, but we’ll have to wait a while before we think about testing that idea.  Have you noticed that you can recall things that have happened with a great deal of clarity?” Blair looked at him seriously, and Ellison simply shrugged.

 

“I could always write more detailed reports on operations I had been involved in than anyone else.” Ellison acknowledged.  He didn’t acknowledge what a pain in the ass that had been though.  Ellison hated report writing.

 

“Right.” Blair nodded excitedly.  “That’s good.  Because we’re going to use that memory of yours to allow us to be separate for a while.”

 

“How?” Ellison demanded, ignoring the slight clenching in his gut at the word separate.

 

“Like this,” Blair smiled, and he reached over to catch at Jim’s right hand.  The young scientist took the bigger man’s hand and laid it over his heart. “Feel the bond between us, Jim.” The smaller man intoned softly.  “Through it, sense what I sense.  Set your levels near mine.  Although, on second thought, you might want to increase the sensitivity of your eyes a little man.  Set your levels near mine there, and you’ll probably find yourself walking into walls.” Ellison released a small snort of laughter at that, and Blair smiled before continuing.  “Okay, how does everything feel?”

 

“Normal.” Ellison released the word on a sigh.  “Like it did before.” Before PV32, he wanted to say, but that was classified, so he kept it too himself.  For the first time, Ellison realized that there were going to be things that he would want to share with his guide that duty would not allow.  The Sentinel within him wasn’t overly happy about that fact.

 

“Good.” Blair nodded, and then released his hand and scooted backward until they were no longer touching each other at all.  Instantly, Ellison's sensitivity started increasing as he instinctively hunted for his missing part.  Ellison gritted his teeth against the sudden increase in input.

 

“I hate to tell you this, kid, but that wasn’t real successful.” Ellison growled.

 

“I didn’t expect it to be.” Sandburg responded cryptically.  “You’ve got the acceptable levels set in your memory though, and that was what we needed.  That was stage one.  Stage two is going to be a little trickier.  What you have to do now is set your senses back near the levels that you memorized.”

 

“Listen kid,” Ellison gritted, barely able to hold himself still against the discomfort.  “I’ve damned well tried to make my senses go back to normal levels.  It doesn’t work.” Ellison could feel the Primitive Sentinel trying to claw its way into the driver’s seat.  It knew how to make the pain go away.

 

“I don’t doubt that.” Blair’s voice had dropped to a whisper in deference to his Sentinel’s obvious discomfort.  “Telling the old ‘Central Computer’ to set everything back to normal levels won’t work, because instinctively, you’re still looking for the easiest way of keeping the levels tolerable, and that would be by connecting to me.  But I won’t be a crutch for you, Jim.  You’re perfectly capable of functioning as you always have.  We just have to get you past the instinctive human desire to take the path of least resistance.  And that means we’re going to have to come up with a ‘manual over-ride’ for that ‘Central Computer’.” Unfortunately, Sandburg finally noticed that the larger man was edging toward him at that moment, and he must have seen the determined gleam in Ellison’s eyes, because when he spoke again, Blair’s voice was neither soft nor gentle.  “Hold it right there, Sentinel!” The young man snapped, causing Ellison to wince.

 

“No.” Ellison growled, the Sentinel within him taking over once more.  On one level, both his tone and his behavior horrified Ellison.  Unfortunately, his discomfort had allowed the primitive part of his soul to take over entirely, and there was little that the civilized man within him could do about it.

 

“Yes!” Sandburg growled back, his eyes taking on a steely determination as he looked at the bigger man.  “I mean it, Sentinel.  I won’t be a crutch for you.  I am the Guide here, and you will do what I say!”

 

For a long moment, the pair of them sat glaring at each other, and Ellison was stunned to realize that this softly spoken and gentle young man had enough fire and iron in his nature to be Jim Ellison’s equal in every way.

 

“Sit back down, Sentinel!” Sandburg demanded.  Ellison felt the primitive creature inside of him waver, and Sandburg must have seen it to, because the next words out of his mouth were even more forceful.  “I mean now, Sentinel.  Do it!

 

Ellison sat.  The surrender was begrudging, and Ellison could feel the Sentinel part of his nature retreat petulantly, but it was a surrender none the less.

 

Sandburg saw it instantly, and nodded sharply in satisfaction.  “Good.” He growled, then effortlessly dropped his voice back to the soothing whisper of before. “Now, as I was saying, we need to find a way for you to set the level of input manually.  What I want you to try to do for me is to close your eyes and visualize six dials for me.  One of them is labeled ‘Hearing’, one is labeled ‘Sight’, one is labeled ‘Scent’, one is labeled ‘Taste’, and one is labeled ‘Touch’.  The last dial is labeled ‘Over-ride’.  That one controls all of your senses simultaneously.  You’ll need that one in case we need to get all of your levels up or down really quickly.  Can you see them?”

 

Surprisingly, Jim could.  As Blair described them, Jim found that he could indeed see them.  That was unusual, because he had never put much stock in ‘creative visualization’ as so many consultants and trainers had called it.  He wondered how much of his success this time came from within him, and how much of it was a direct result of the calming presence of his guide coming to him through the emotional link he could still feel. 

 

“All right.  I want you to ignore that last dial.  We don’t need it right now.  I want you to focus on the dial that is labeled ‘Hearing’.  Where is it set?”

 

“Just edging past ‘7’ now.” Jim grimaced.

 

“Okay.” Blair whispered soothingly.  “I want you to imagine yourself taking hold of it and slowly turning it down.  The knob may be a little stiff at first, but I want you to persist.  It’ll go down for you.  When you reach the level that you were sensing when you were joined with me, I want you to leave it there.”

 

Ellison did as he was told.  As Blair had warned, it was a little difficult to force the dial to go in the direction that he wanted it to go in at first, but after a moment he had it turned back down to a mid point between ‘3’ and ‘4’.  It felt like it had when he was linked with Blair there, so he imagined pulling his hand off the dial.

 

“Cool?” Blair asked suddenly, and Ellison was stunned to realize that the kid was talking in a normal tone of voice.  Jim felt himself nod jerkily, too surprised by his success to form any actual words.  “Good.” Blair’s voice was a study in satisfaction.  “Now, let’s go to ‘Sight’.  Since I’m still in you’re direct line of sight, that one shouldn’t have edged up too much.  We’ll set it anyway, just for practice.  Now take hold of that dial and bring it back to the right level.  Just remember what I said about keeping your sensitivity above mine on that dial.  I wish I could say that I had been joking about the walking into walls thing.”

 

Gradually, Blair talked him through setting each of the dials to a tolerable level.  By the time they were finished, Jim was feeling a little drained mentally, but for the first time since his return from PV-32, he felt completely normal.

 

Ellison looked at the young man still sitting cross-legged on the bed, just out of arms reach, and smiled at him.

 

“You did it.” Jim whispered, not trusting his voice enough to speak at a normal volume.

 

Blair’s mouth twisted in a self-depreciating little smile in response.  “We did it.” The scientist corrected him gently, “And I’m afraid that that was just the beginning.  We still have a long way to go here.  This was just a first step, and one you’re going to have to practice.  I have a feeling that it’s going to take a bit of that for you to set your levels and then have them stay put for any significant period of time.  We’ll practice that today.  You need to start getting your department together, and so do I.  So that’s what we’ll work on.  Maintaining the levels.  You’ll do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do. Separately.”

 

Jim really didn’t like the sound of that.  “But, what if…”

 

“Look, man, I’ll be in my office and I promise to stay there.  You’ll be in your office.  If you’re having problems, you can come to me and we’ll work through it together.  If anything gives you a really hard time, I’ll come to you.  Just hit your communicator and say my name, and I’ll come running.  I promise.  I know that it’s uncomfortable to be apart so quickly, but we’ve only got a week.  If we can’t get our shit together by then, Banks will have no choice but to send us back to Earth.  I can’t risk that.  I won’t.  If ensuring your safety is going to take us pushing ourselves, then that’s what we do. Got it?”  Blair looked up at his Sentinel so earnestly that Ellison felt his heart swell up with his affection for this selfless young man.  Through the bond, he could feel the truth of Sandburg’s words.  He would do whatever it took to ensure Jim’s safety. 

 

The Sentinel in Ellison still wanted to protest that they shouldn’t be apart, but it wasn’t because of any discomfort on his part.  The Sentinel within him was worried that he couldn’t protect his Guide properly if they were away from each other.  Jim Ellison would not voice that fear though.  He knew that the fear that something would happen to Blair as soon as he was out of his sight was an irrational one, and he wanted to show the Guide that he appreciated the younger man’s dedication to his safety.  Therefore, instead of voicing the protest that the Sentinel within him wanted desperately to make, Ellison simply climbed off the bed and indulged himself in a joint-popping stretch.

 

“All right,” Ellison agreed.  “You’re the boss, kid.  But let’s start with something real simple, shall we?  I’m just going to go next door into my own room and get dressed.  You do the same.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.  We’ll see how I’m doing then, okay?”

 

“Sounds like a plan.” Blair grinned.

 

“Okay then.” Jim nodded. Feeling curiously reluctant to actually turn around and walk out, Jim continued to hover near the door that separated the two rooms.  Blair watched him expectantly for a moment, before bursting out laughing and throwing a pillow at the Sentinel.

 

“Get a grip, man!” he chuckled.  “Nothing is going to happen to me in the few minutes it’ll take us both to get changed.  Now get out of here.  Go!!!  I’ll see you in ten minutes.  We’ll both be fine until then.”

 

Ellison felt a sheepish smile touch his face.  “Right.” He agreed.  “We’ll both be fine.  Going now.”

 

“Good.” Blair smirked.  “Bye-bye!” The little shit was giving him a cutesy little wave.

 

“See you.” Jim forced himself to hit the door button.  He almost didn’t notice that the door mechanism didn’t sound like nails on a chalk board to him this time.

 

“Ten minutes.” Blair smiled.  “That’s all.”

 

“Ten minutes.” Jim echoed, then forced himself to step through the door into his own room.  For a long moment, Jim just stood on the inside of his door.  However, the world didn’t go to pieces on him, and no sounds of distress were audible from his Guide, and he could still feel the younger man’s presence though the emotional link they shared, so Jim Ellison quickly began his morning ablutions.  For the first time in a long time, Jim had the feeling that everything really was going to work itself out.

 


 

Blair almost collapsed in relief when the door finally closed behind his Sentinel.  The young empath continued to send soothing emotions through the bond to Ellison, but was extremely grateful that it was he, and not Ellison, who was the experienced empath.  If Ellison were not so inexperienced, he would have been able to sense his Guide’s distress, and then he would have never managed to get the older man out on his own.

 

Blair quickly pulled himself into the lotus position and went to work on centering himself.  It was going to be a long day for him, but he hadn’t been lying when he’d told Ellison that he would do whatever it took to ensure his Sentinel’s safety.

 

All he could do now was hope that the inspiration that had suggested how to solve Ellison’s problem with separation would now come back and tell him how to deal with his own problem.

 


 

Simon Banks was exhausted.  He’d known when he took on this assignment that it was going to be trouble, but he’d foolishly believed that the trouble in question would only really begin when they hit the Neutral Zone.  As a general rule, Starfleet where very careful to never launch a new vessel until everyone involved with said vessel was one hundred percent sure that the starship was ready to fly.  Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to factor intergalactic politics into things.  Now he was the one that was stuck with the consequences of the ritual posturing that always seemed to take place when any of the galaxy’s ‘Alpha’ powers came together on the same issue.

 

When the agreement on patrolling the Neutral Zones had been reached, the Romulans had declared that they could be ready to begin patrols within what amounted to six Earth months.  It was ridiculous really.  Realistically speaking, it was impossible to construct a ship for a specialist mission, assemble a crew, program the computers, develop the protocols needed for dealing with a situation that no Federation Crew had ever been in before, communicate said protocols to the new and extremely uneasy allies who would be working along side them, negotiate any changes in the protocols that would be required to ensure that there were no nasty misunderstandings between them and their new ‘allies’, and then work out any of the ‘bugs’ that inevitably show up when launching a new class of ship, all within a six month period.  To believe that it was possible was just insanity.  Yet the diplomats had agreed to the time line, because it simply wouldn’t do for the Federation to appear to be slower to mobilize that the Romulans and the Klingons. 

 

It was a widely spread Federation joke that you could convince a Klingon to do anything, up to and including shooting him or herself, if you could just convince them that their ‘honor’ would appear tarnished if they didn’t.  Yet when it came right down to it, the Federation was just as bad.  The Federation’s little exercise in ‘face saving’ while negotiating the Neutral Zone patrols had left Simon Banks with six weeks of preparation to complete within the next six days.

 

Needless to say, he hadn’t had a lot of sleep lately.

 

Simon knew that doing what he was about to do was a waste of time that he simply didn’t have, yet he knew that in spite of this, he would do it anyway.  He might be a Starship Captain, but he was also a human being.  And right at that moment, he was a human being that needed to check on a friend.  Simon knew that he could lie to himself and say that he was simply double checking to see if the week that he had given his new Security Chief to get himself together was indeed the monumental mistake that his Chief Medical Officer had proclaimed it to be.  What would be the point though?  Simon knew himself well enough to know that even if he had sent James Ellison off the ship, he’d still be wasting this time checking up on him.  Jim was a difficult man, but he’d been one hell of a friend to Simon Banks, and it simply wasn’t in Simon’s nature to turn his back on someone that had done as much to earn his respect as Jim had.

 

Banks paused as he entered the corridor that the Security Center was located on and drew a deep breath.  Simon had been stunned by the occurrences of the day before and had not reacted well to his friend’s trauma.  Banks swore to himself that this time he would remain calm and accepting, no matter what he encountered when he walked into Jim’s office.  He drew a deep breath, then walked resolutely toward the security office door and entered without breaking stride as the doors opened automatically for him.

 

After all of Bank’s mental preparations, the scene that met him as he stalked through the door was almost disconcertingly normal.  Jim Ellison was sitting at his desk, glaring at the computer terminal in front of him as though it were an enemy that he was attempting to out-stare.  There was no sign of the young scientist that Ellison had been so unwilling to let go of only yesterday.  Banks wondered if he should start looking for a body.

 

“Hey, Simon.” Ellison called without looking away from the screen he was glaring at.

 

Banks blinked and wondered for an instant how Jim had known it was him.  Then he remembered what Sandburg had said about heightened senses, and decided that he didn’t really want to know.  “Morning, Jim.” Banks replied.  The taller man stood by the door and waited for a moment, but it became rapidly obvious that the single minded Ellison focus that he knew so well was operating at full capacity.  Banks struggled to keep a grin from touching his face.  This was the Jim Ellison that he knew.  Dedicated, focused… and completely lacking any kind of social graces. “I hope that I’m not disturbing you, Ellison.” Banks drawled, allowing a note of dry sarcasm to enter his voice.

 

Ellison finally looked up at that.  He even had the grace to look somewhat abashed as he realized that Banks had been waiting on him.  “Sorry ‘bout that, Captain.” The ex-ranger grimaced.

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Banks allowed a tiny smile to touch his face.  “It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one around here working their ass off.”

 

Ellison gave his Captain a shrewd look.  “I take it that things aren’t running on their ‘projected schedule’ here.”

 

Banks allowed a long-suffering grimace to touch his face.  “No big surprises there.” He snorted.  “Some desk-jockey comes up with an unworkable schedule for getting this ship into the Neutral Zone.  Everyone involved in the project knows that it’s not workable, but if we’re not ready on time, it’s my ass in the sling.” Banks shrugged wearily.  “I don’t really foresee much sleep in my near future.”

 

Ellison sighed wearily and ducked his head slightly.  “Damn.” He said softly, then looked at Banks with guilt-ridden eyes.  “I know that I haven’t made things any easier, Simon.  Particularly after my behavior yesterday.  It can’t be helping matters to have the Medical Officer trying to call every half an hour to discuss how important it is to not have a potentially unstable Head of Security, either.”

 

Banks shot his old friend a surprised look, only to have Ellison respond with an unconcerned shrug. “I’ve been monitoring her transmissions since I got in here two hours ago.”

 

“Ellison!” Banks growled irritably.  Baccus was a pain in the ass, but she was entitled to some privacy.

 

“Just testing the equipment, Sir.” Ellison’s bland look spoke of a total lack of remorse. “In any case, it was a hassle that you didn’t need, Captain, and I’m sorry to have laid it on you.”

 

“Forget it.” Banks snorted, then paused as it occurred to him how surreal this conversation really was.  His security chief was apologizing for gnawing on his science officer’s neck, and he was forgiving said security officer out of hand.  Banks wondered exactly when he’d fallen down the rabbit hole.  Banks allowed himself a small, disbelieving chuckle.  “You weren’t the first person to feel like biting the kid’s head off yesterday.” He snorted.

 

Ellison gave his Captain a strange look, and tensed up slightly at his words.  Banks sighed.

 

“It was a joke, Ellison.” He drawled.

 

Ellison relaxed slightly.  “If you say so, Sir.”

 

Banks shook his head.  All of his senses supposedly heightened, and still the man had no sense of humor.  “So, where’s the kid?” Banks asked.

 

“In his office.” The look on Ellison’s face told Banks everything he needed to know about how much the Security Chief liked that idea.  “He came up with an idea to help me to work independently of him.  He said that the sooner we started practicing, the sooner we’d get it under control.  Besides, we both had a lot to do to get our departments in order.” Ellison’s eyes suddenly became vaguely unfocused. “He’s pretty tense at the moment.  I guess that he’s having as much trouble with getting things sorted out as I am.”

 

Banks nodded in approval. He was so busy trying not to show his relief that Sandburg hadn’t just been blowing smoke when he’d said that they would be able to function independently of one another that he missed the odd certainty in Ellison’s voice about how Sandburg was feeling.  Instead, he focused on the obvious part of Ellison’s statement.  “I’m glad to hear that you’re both taking this seriously.  With everything else that needs doing in the next six days, I’m glad to hear that I won’t be having to cover your jobs as well.”

 

“We wouldn’t do that to you, Simon.” Ellison frowned.

 

“I know, Jim, but you weren’t yourself yesterday and you had me worried.” Banks admitted quietly.  “God knows that I don’t need anything else to deal with right now.  So many things have gone wrong in the last few weeks already.  I’m beginning to think that someone has it in for this ship.”

 

“How so?” Ellison’s asked with a bland neutrality that belied the sudden sharp focus of his pale blue eyes.

 

Banks grimaced.  “I have never in my life known so many faulty parts to turn up on one ship.” Banks sighed and then leaned back against a wall and folded his arms wearily against his chest.  “Every time I turn around, there’s a message from Taggart,” Simon broke off and glanced at Ellison, “our Chief engineer,” he added as an aside.  When Ellison nodded to indicate that he already knew that, Banks continued.  “Any way, every day, something else turns up that isn’t working properly.  And because we’re at stardock, and not some efficient little deep space station, I have to be the one that has to organize the replacement parts.  Most of these bastards have been Earth bound for too long.“ Banks growled in frustration.  “All they have to do all day is study their damned protocol manuals.  If the requisition forms and the reports on the faulty parts don’t come through the right channels, they won’t process them.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time for everything to go through the proper channels, so I have to chase people up myself.  And God knows I’m already short on time, without having to chase that shit up too.”  Banks sighed again, and then offered up a wear smile.  “Like I said, I’m beginning to think that someone has it in for this mission.”

 

Ellison looked at him strangely for a moment, and then leaned back in his chair.

 

“Have you signed off on the crew list yet?” the ex-Ranger asked quietly.

 

Banks blinked at the non sequitur.  “No.” he said slowly.  “That’s one of the forms that hasn’t come up yet.  I’ve been too busy trying to get the ship operational.”

 

“Do yourself a favor, Sir.” Ellison said darkly.  “Don’t.  If someone has indeed got it in for this mission, then they did a brilliant job of getting someone in personnel on-side.”

 

Banks could suddenly feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he pushed himself off the wall to walk over to Ellison’s desk.  He suddenly remembered the darkly intense look on Ellison’s face as he’d walked into the room.  Ellison had found something, and what ever it was, it wasn’t good.  “What have you got, Commander?” Banks demanded with the sudden authority of his Command persona.

 

Ellison grimaced.  “Normally, Sir, I prefer to get in and get my hands dirty before I look at the admin side of things.  Under normal circumstances, I’d be testing the security systems and double checking equipment right about now.  Unfortunately, even with all of the help that Sandburg’s given me, I’m not really very comfortable with maintaining the input levels just yet, and the last thing I want to be doing in front of any of my people is that zombie thing that happens to me occasionally, so I thought I’d start with organizing the duty roster.  I decided to have a look at the records of the crew in my department , to see where their talents lie.” Ellison paused and then stood up, indicating that Banks should take the seat he’d just vacated.  Banks sat down and looked at the information on the screen. 

 

“This mission isn’t going to be a walk in the park, Simon.” Ellison said darkly.  “You already know that.  And you know that there are only three types of people that apply for assignment to this kind of mission.  The desperate, the arrogant, and the ignorant.  With the deal that they were offering covert operatives to get out of the game and into a legitimate branch of Starfleet if they were willing to participate in the trial tour of duty for the Neutral Zone Patrol, I expected that most of my department would be made up of the desperate.  Take the officer whose record you’re looking at now.  Katrine Romanov.  I know of her through covert ops. Most of her records are sealed.  You’re looking at the sanitized version.  Lieutenant Romanov was a cleaner.  An assassin.  Damned good too.  There was no way an operative like Romanov was ever going to get out of the game alive.  Your job offer would have seemed like an invitation to play blackjack with the gods.  The stakes would seem high to a person like that.  She won’t be able to quietly get out if the shit hits the fan.  But if the gamble pays off, then she gets to walk away with her soul.  Something she sold to Starfleet Intelligence a long time ago.”

 

Ellison broke off then and sighed.  “That kind of desperate I’d anticipated,” he acknowledged.  “What I hadn’t anticipated was the other kind of desperate I found.  Computer, bring up Ensign Chad Westlake’s records.” Ellison waited for the computer to follow his instructions.  As soon as the records flashed on the screen, Banks began to read, determined to see for himself what it was that had alarmed Ellison so much.  Within a minute he saw it, and he instantly understood Ellison’s alarm.  “As you can see, this man’s record is less than sterling.” Ellison continued, his voice taking on a heavy sarcasm that boded no good for anyone.  “Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.  My department is practically riddled with people like this.  People who should have been kicked out of Starfleet before they ever got in. I know that every organization is going to have it’s low-lifes, but some of these ass-holes should have never have got through the damned academy!  Ensign Westlake here should have been a Lieutenant by now, but he is completely incapable of controlling his temper.  The man is violent and unpredictable.  And while I acknowledge the irony of my saying this right now, it still needs to be said.  To quote Dr Baccus, ‘This man is obviously unstable and there is no room for an unstable person on this ship’.”

 

Banks stared at the record in front of him and wondered how a man like this could have ever have been assigned to a deep space mission.

 

“This isn’t even the worst of them, Simon.” Ellison said quietly.  “There are about eight others.  One of them is a fucking xenophobe for God’s sake.”

 

What???” Banks turned to gape at his old friend in disbelief.

 

“I know.” Ellison grimaced.  “It’s not written into his psych profile, he never would have got into Starfleet if it had been, but it’s there.  You just have to look at the incidents that have lead to his many, many reprimands and black marks to see it.  I don’t know why someone like that would have even wanted to go into Starfleet, but the man hates non-humans.  Considering that about half the crew aren’t human, and pretty much everybody we’re likely to be dealing with in the neutral zone will be non-human, that is a problem.”

 

Banks sat back in Ellison’s chair and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Christ.” He swore quietly.

 

“I’m guessing that these people have been given the option of volunteering for this mission, or being drummed out of Starfleet.” Ellison growled softly.  “Considering that a Captain is usually too busy to go through the records of every person on their ship before signing off on the crew list, it would have been a reasonable safe bet that we would have never have realized that there was a problem with these men until it was way too late to do anything about it.”

 

“So someone wants to use my ship to deal with their problems, do they?” Banks said quietly, then promptly erupted, “I don’t think so!!!” he roared, slamming his fist against Ellison’s desk. 

 

Ellison flinched visibly.

 

Banks felt some of his anger fade at his security officer’s obvious discomfort.  Ellison evidently sensed his Captain’s eyes on him and shrugged slightly.  “Sorry, Sir.” He grimaced.  “I think I’m getting close to the point where I need to go see Sandburg.  I’m losing my grip on the ‘dials’.”

 

“On the what?” Banks demanded, then quickly held up his hand. “No, wait.  On second thought, I don’t want to know.  What I do want from you though Commander, is for you to send me the records of all of those that you felt were not suited to this mission.  I also want you to send a memo to all of the other section heads to check their people’s records as soon as possible.  I’m just not going to have time to.  When everyone has reported back to me, I’m going to take the combined information and I am going to bludgeon some son-of-a-bitch in personnel to death with it!”  Simon stood up and walked toward the door, anger lending purpose to his stride.  Just before he reached the door though, Banks stopped, and looked back at his Security Chief.

 

“Good pick up, Ellison.  Don’t bother apologizing for what happened yesterday again.  You’ve just proven to me that my faith in you was well justified.” Ellison’s back straightened marginally and a slight smile touched his face at his captain’s words.  “All right, Commander, now hurry up and warn the other section heads about our personnel problem.” Banks added as he turned on his heel and headed back to the door.  Ellison’s cool voice followed him out of the office.

 

“Very good, Sir.”

 


 

Blair Sandburg was in hell. 

 

There was just no other way for him to view it.  Not after nearly two and a half hours of separation.  He hadn’t had this much trouble with his barriers since he had been a young child.  He was being bombarded from all sides by the emotions of others.  Even hiding out in his office wasn’t helping.  With the tight timeline they were on, and the dangerous nature of the mission that they were about to undertake, tensions were running high.  The combined stress and low-level anxiety of the crew as a whole was running through the breach in his mental barriers like an electrical current, making even the task of focusing his eyes on the computer terminal in front of him a challenge. 

 

In spite of this, Blair continued to do everything in his power to keep his discomfort hidden from his sentinel.  Several times in the last few hours, Blair had felt the ‘pushing’ along the link that he shared with Ellison that signified that the sentinel was checking up on him.  He knew that he had been unable to disguise his tension fully, but given the state of the ship and the time they had left to get everything ready for departure, tension was entirely understandable.  Instead, Sandburg had focused on hiding the pain that went with the tension from the other man.  Blair knew only too well that if Ellison caught even a hint of the fact that his Guide was in pain, then this exercise in existing separately would be over.  On the one hand, the idea of ending this torture session was very appealing to Blair, but he did not allow himself to give in to that desire.  Because as appealing as returning to his sentinel’s sheltering warmth was, Blair knew that if Ellison realized how much this pained him, the older man would never let his Guide out of his sight again. And if they couldn’t exist separately, then Banks would have no choice but to send them back to Earth.

 

Just the thought of what those bastards in Intelligence might do to Ellison if word of his sentinel abilities were to get out was enough to clamp down against the desire to return to his sentinel’s side.  He had told Ellison that he would not be a crutch for the larger man, but Blair was equally determined that the opposite would also hold true.  He and Ellison were the science and security officers respectively.  There were going to be times when they were going to have to work apart.  If they couldn’t then they couldn’t do their jobs, and Blair was determined that the Sentinel/Guide bond that they now shared would only enrich their lives, not take away from them.

 

Blair sighed and leaned back tiredly in his chair to rub at his temples in a vain effort to relieve some of the pain.  He was so badly overloaded at this point that even his skin hurt.  Blair swallowed against the desire to run back to his sentinel for about the hundredth time that hour and leaned forward in an attempt to get something useful done in this interminable period of torture.  He was about to call up a diagnostic program for some of the molecular analyzing equipment, when an urgent memo popped up on his screen from Security.  For one horrible second, Blair was actually caught between the mind-numbing fear that something had happened to his sentinel, and the desperate hope that his sentinel needed him for something, so that he could go to him without guilt.  However, before he could get too deeply involved in becoming wound up, Blair realized that he could ‘sense’ Ellison’s well being through the link.  The knowledge that Jim was all right allowed Blair to calm down enough to open the message, to see what his sentinel wanted of him.

 

To his surprise, the message was for all section heads, and it was a warning to drop what they were doing and check the records for everyone assigned to their sections immediately.  Blair frowned slightly, wondering what could possibly be so important.  He had already checked his staff records, and everything had seemed in order.  Then again, the science department on this ship was one of the smallest sections.  The Raptor was not designed for exploration or study.  It was designed to enforce inter-galactic  law in a region of space that had forgotten what law was.  His department was there simply to assist in furthering that cause.  Blair wondered what Jim had found in the crew records of his much larger department to rate this level of concern.

 

Blair had just banished the message and was about to have another go at calling up that diagnostic program when the door to his office opened and Serena Chang stuck her head around the corner.

 

“Is it safer to come in here today?” she asked drolly as she cast her eyes around the still hopelessly overcrowded little office.  The laughter in her eyes died immediately upon coming to rest on her section head.  “God, Blair!  You look terrible!” she gasped.

 

“Thanks.” Blair tried to smile, but had a feeling that he hadn’t pulled it off very well.

 

“Are you all right?” she asked seriously as she walked over to him.

 

“I’m okay.” He tried for reassuring this time, but from the increased worry that he could see in his fellow empath’s eyes, he obviously hadn’t succeeded very well with that either.

 

“You don’t look okay.” Serena said seriously.  “You look like you’re in pain.  You look like you’re pretty damned close to just collapsing in a big heap.”

 

Blair grimaced.  Actually, he was forced to admit that he was getting pretty close to that point, and that worried him.  As overprotective as Jim was liable to get if he went down to Security and asked if they could bond with each other for a while, it would be nothing in comparison to how he’d get if he were called up to the medical center because his Guide had collapsed.  There had to be something that he could do about not being able to hold up his barriers.  As a fellow empath, Dr Chang would have a better idea than anyone else about what he was going through, and a fresh perspective on what he might be able to do about it could be just what he needed…

 

“I do have the headache from hell.” He admitted tiredly.

 

“Well why haven’t you gone over to medical to get something for it?” Serena demanded, then paused and grimaced.  “Oh, right.  After yesterday, that would be a dumb question, huh?”

 

Blair tried to smile at that.  “Actually, I was raised as a Naturalist.  I would have avoided going to the med. center even if Dr Baccus didn’t want to have me committed to a mental hospital.”

 

Serena’s expression suggested that she didn’t get that at all, but she put aside questioning him on that to question him on far more important matters.  “So, is what happened yesterday between you and Commander Ellison the reason for the migraine?”

 

Blair sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Yeah.” He acknowledged wearily.

 

Serena bristled noticeably.  “What did he do to you?” she demanded.

 

Blair looked at the profiler sharply, then winced at the pain his sudden movement caused.  “He didn’t do anything to me.  I did it all to myself.”

 

What have you done all to yourself, Blair?” Serena asked, her expression grave.

 

Blair pursed his lips for a moment, then looked directly into Serena’s eyes so that she knew that he was telling the whole truth.  “Yesterday I bonded empathically with Commander Ellison.” He explained quietly.

 

“I know.” Serena interrupted, then grimaced again.  “I mean, I was only on the very edges of it, but even the little bit that I felt…” Serena trailed off with a little shake of her head.  “How in the name of God did you bear that?”

 

“It was difficult at first,” Blair acknowledged quietly, “And it did kind of hurt in the beginning, but once I got past that,  it was… is… incredible.  My whole life I’ve always felt as though I’ve been missing something.  Like I wasn’t really whole.  Like I was really damaged in some profound way.” Blair looked up at Serena and willed her to understand.  “When I saw Jim yesterday, it was like I finally found the part of me that was missing, and when we bonded, the part of me that was broken, healed.”

 

Serena looked at him for a long moment before nodding slowly.  “I’m glad then, Blair.”  She said quietly.  “I have to admit that what I was getting off you yesterday was a certainty about the situation that I didn’t really understand at the time.”

 

“But you backed me up anyway.” Blair tried to smile again, this time to show his gratitude.  “I didn’t get to say anything yesterday, but thanks.  I really don’t know if I could have persuaded Banks to back me over Baccus if you hadn’t been so supportive.  I owe you more than I can say.”

 

Serena smiled again and ducked her head slightly.  “Don’t mention it” Serena snorted.  “Baccus’s attitude though out that whole ordeal was totally unacceptable.  I despise narrow mindedness.  I find that it’s usually a sign unwillingness to learn.  I looked up Baccus’ records today though, and from everything I’ve been able to find out, she’s a very good doctor.  That surprised me a little, but I suppose I can live with her as long as she can do her job.” Serena turned slightly to rest her hip against the desk and looked across at Blair expectantly.  “Now, aside from philosophical leanings and the fact that our Chief Medical Officer has the personality of a black hole, none of this has really told me why you’re sitting in here looking like you’ve got one foot in the grave, and the other on a banana skin.”

 

“True.” Blair acknowledged wearily.  “The problem I’ve got is that my bonding with Ellison has put a hole in my empathic barriers.  I can’t raise them properly.”

 

Serena hissed through her teeth. “Ouch.” She muttered, her expression becoming deeply worried again.  “Blair, we’ve got to find a way to heal your barriers.  No wonder you look like hell!  My God, something like this can kill an empath!”

 

“I know.”  Blair admitted,  “but it’s not as easy as just repairing my barriers, Serena.  There’s a lot more involved in it than that.”

 

“More?” Serena looked slightly sick at that.  “Blair, I think you’d better explain this to me so that I know what we’re dealing with here.”

 

So Blair explained.  He told Serena briefly about sentinels and he explained as best he could given the thumping level of his headache, about the surprising discovery he had made in the medical center the day before about the true role of the Guide in controlling the Sentinel’s ability. He explained about the mental link that now existed between himself and James Ellison and he explained about the one-week timeline that Banks had given them.  By the time he was finished, he was utterly exhausted from the effort involved in being concise, when all he wanted to do was close his eyes until the pain went way, and Serena was looking ever so slightly shell shocked.

 

“Oh my God.” Whispered Serena in horror.  “Blair, you’ve got to go forward with this.  Do you know how many people there could be like Ellison locked away in mental institutions?  People who were considered delusional because they claimed that they were hearing voices?  I mean, what if some of those people really were hearing voices?  They’d have no hope for healing, because no empath would even go near a mental hospital.”

 

“I know that!” Blair blurted, then curled in on himself slightly as the volume of his own voice sent a stab of pain through his head.  He drew a deep breath and tried again.  “I know that Serena.  Honestly, I do.  And I feel terrible about it.  But right now my number one priority is Jim Ellison.  I have to get him out of here.  He’s ex-covert op.’s.  Can you imagine what his old bosses would do if they got a hold of him?  I mean, a sentinel’s surveillance equipment is entirely organic, and therefore totally undetectable by even the most thorough enemy sensor sweep.  They’d take him and they’d pull him apart trying to figure out how to make more of him!  And he’s so new to this, Serena.  If they took him now he’d be totally defenseless against them.  They’d destroy him.  I can’t let that happen.  That’s why we have to be ready to go when this ship is.  That’s why no one else can know about this.  At least, not yet.”

 

Blair looked hard at his fellow scientist and silently willed her to be honest with herself about what would happen if word on Ellison’s abilities got out.

 

Serena sighed and nodded slowly.  “I know.  Sorry about that.  It was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to a surprise is all.  And I do understand why you want this kept as quiet as possible.  I hate to say it, but not every scientist is as ethical as they should be.  Intelligence would find someone willing to ignore the fact that you and Ellison are sentient beings who have rights.”  Serena sighed again and then walked across to sit in one of the small office’s other chairs, her expression thoughtful.  “You were really lucky that Banks is such an ethical man.  With the kind of pressure that’s being exerted to make sure this ship is ready to go, come hell or high water, a lot of captains would have thrown you both to the sharks to simply get you both out of their hair.  A week’s grace isn’t a lot, but it’s more than most would have given you.”

 

“I know.” Blair agreed wearily.  “That’s why I’ve gotta come up with a solution to this problem of mine, like yesterday.”  Blair leaned back and pushed his hair out of his eyes.  “There’s so much we have to cover before next week, I hardly know where to start, but we’re not going to get anywhere if I can’t get past this.”

 

“I think you’re trying too hard.” asserted Serena suddenly.  “I mean, this is obviously something that your predecessors in guiding dealt with, so it can’t be an insurmountable problem.  You came up with a solution to Ellison’s problem without too much effort, but you’ve allowed yourself to become stumped by your own.  In my professional opinion, you’ve become so caught up in your fear that you are going to end up being a liability to your sentinel, that you can’t work your way past that picture.  You need to be focusing on viewing yourself as one of your sentinel’s greatest strengths, and allowing yourself to work within that image.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

 

“Serena, I think that you’re simplifying the problem a bit much…”

 

“I don’t.” Serena snorted and looked at him appraisingly.  “Okay then.  If we’re going to get this sorted out, we’re going to need to start with the basics.  Describe to me what your ‘shields’ were like before your run in with Ellison.”

 

Blair gave her a long-suffering look and silently pleaded for a reprieve from dumb questions.  Serena, though, was having none of it.

 

“Don’t give me that look, Dr Sandburg.” She said firmly.  “You know as well as I do that no two empaths visualize the mental processes involved in holding up an empathic shield in exactly the same way.  I need to know how you’re visualizing this problem of yours before we can work on a solution.  Empathy is, with the exception of a few individuals with physiological abnormalities, most widely a function of the mind.  As such, its parameters are created by the mind.  I’m an empath, Blair, not a telepath.  I pick up on emotions and impressions, just like you.  I can’t see exactly how you’re thinking about this problem of yours.  You’re going to have to tell me.”

 

“Sorry.” Blair grimaced and sunk further into his chair.  Serena’s eyes became compassionate at that point . 

 

“I know that it’s hard, Blair, and I know that you’re in pain.  But that’s what we’re trying to fix here, so I need you to try.”

 

“Okay.” Blair breathed , then sat back again to focus his thoughts.  “Just remember, this isn’t something that’s easy to describe, you know?”

 

“I know, Blair.” Serena nodded.

 

“All right.  I’ve always kind of viewed my ‘shielding’ as a second skin.  It stood out about a hand length away from my body.  I’ve always seen my ‘shield’ as being a kind of gel that flows between by body and the ‘second skin’.  The gel absorbed the emotions of others before they could effect me.  Now that I’ve got that hole in the shield, I can’t keep anything out.” Blair shuddered miserably.  “It’s driving me nuts, here.”

 

“I can imagine.” Serena grimaced.  “Okay, so you need to maintain the link between yourself and Ellison.  How about mentally constructing some insulation around your link.  You know, visualize that ‘second skin around both yourself and Ellison.  Visualize the mental link as a chord running between you and protect the chord, as well as yourself and Ellison with the gel.”

 

Blair sat back, his eyes hooded.  “Maybe,” he said slowly.  “Maybe it would work.  But that’s one hell of a complicated image to construct and hold.  I still won’t be much good if all of my attention is focused on holding my shields up.”

 

“Let’s just try it.” Serena suggested.  “You and I both know that these things do get easier with practice.  Let’s just see if it works, first.  We’ll worry about how to maintain it if it works.”

 

“Okay.”  Blair nodded, then settled himself back in the chair.  He knew perfectly well that if this was to have even a chance at succeeding, then he was going to have to focus and center himself before he even began.  For several minutes, all Blair did was breath.  He carefully brought himself to a state of total mental focus that allowed him to accept the pain of his migraine and simply absorb it, negating it from his consciousness.  When he was totally calm, he allowed himself to visualize his sentinel.  It was disconcertingly easy to construct the necessary mental image of a man that he had never set eyes on before yesterday.  The image just seemed to leap into his mind, perfect from the surprising elegance of the older man’s hands, to the calculating intelligence that made the ice-blue eyes shine from within.  The image was so perfect that Blair could swear that he could feel the protective warmth of the other man’s presence.

 

For a second, Blair allowed himself to marvel over how easy constructing that image of his sentinel had actually been.  Normally it was difficult to construct a complete mental image of someone, even when you had known that person for years.  After a moment though, Blair forced himself to move on.  Long practice allowed him to construct the necessary image of himself, and from there he visualized the empathic bond that joined them.  He then visualized the second skin that would serve as their barrier and mentally ‘filled’ that barrier with the ‘gel’ that would serve as their protection.

 

It took a moment to fix the image in place.  When he was certain that he had it, he eased himself out of the trance like state he had made himself enter and back to full consciousness.

 

Blair opened his eyes slowly, and almost sobbed with relief. 

 

He could still ‘sense’ Serena’s concern for him, but it was no longer driving through his consciousness like a metal spike.  He was aware that there were sentient beings all around him, but he no longer felt that they were joining forces to drive him insane with their collective anxiety.

 

He almost felt normal.

 

“Better?” Serena asked quietly, and Blair could only nod gratefully.  Serena smiled gently.  “I told you that it was all a matter of the mind.” Serena smiled, then frowned again.  “I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to work.  You were very still for a very long time there.”

 

“I know.”  Blair leaned forward to rest his head against his hands on the desk.  “Actually, the visualization process was surprisingly easy.  It was getting myself past the headache that was hard.”

 

“You still have the headache, I assume.” Serena was looking worried again.

 

“Yeah.” Blair acknowledged.  “I’m still pretty overloaded, but at least it isn’t getting any worse right now.”

 

“You know, it’s going to take practice for you to hold that image for any length of time while you’re focusing on other things.” The profiler reminded him gently. “You might want to go be with your Sentinel a while, just until you’re back on an even keel, at least.”

 

“Yeah.” Blair breathed and wrinkled his nose. “I kinda get the feeling that Ellison isn’t going to be too happy with me for not letting him know I’ve been hurting, but I also think he might be even more mightily pissed off if he gets called down to medical over me passing out.” Blair paused before adding, “And we like, soooooo don’t need to give Baccus any more ammunition to use against us.”

 

“Good call.” Serena nodded.  “Let’s get you back to Ellison for now.  Is there anything that you want done in the next few hours?”

 

“Nah, it can all wait.”  Blair sighed, then tiredly used the desk in front of him to help him to rise to his feet.

 

“You going to be okay to make it to Ellison?” Serena asked worriedly.  “You still look like hell.”

 

“I still feel like it.” Blair summoned up a tired smile for his colleague.  “But thanks to you, I’ve got enough of my barriers up to last the walk.” Blair drew a deep breath then and gave the profiler a level look. “Thank you Serena.” He said seriously.  “I’d been grappling with that problem all morning.  I don’t know if I would have gotten past it.  You were a real lifesaver.  I owe you.”

 

Serena actually looked flustered at that. “Rubbish.” She snorted.  “Your only problem was that you’d gotten yourself so focused on the problem that you couldn’t see your way clear to the solution anymore.  And with the problem being as serious and painful as an inability to raise your empathic shields, that isn’t very surprising.  The one thing you have to keep in mind is that from everything you’ve told me, Jim would have gone mad without you.  He was actually on the verge of that when you found him.  What ever else happens, you are always going to be one of his greatest strengths.  You need to see yourself in that light.”

 

Blair curled his nose slightly in self-depreciation.  “Maybe.” he mumbled.

 

“Definitely.” Serena asserted with a warm look, then gave her head a small shake, apparently in reaction to his obvious embarrassment at her praise. 

 

“Thanks again, Serena.” He muttered, consciously willing the heat to leave his face, as he stepped out from behind his table.

 

“Don’t mention it.” Serena grinned again.  “And if it’s all the same with you, I think I’ll just accompany you to the security office as a part of my ‘getting to know the ship’ efforts.  You may have your shields up again, but it’s going to take some time before the visualizations become ingrained, and you still look like you’re going to pass out at any second.  I think that the last thing that you need right now, is some well-meaning soul to come rushing to your assistance if you get a little faint.  The way you are right now, there’s no way your shielding could cope with direct physical contact.”

 

Blair sighed and nodded.  He might not be overly pleased with his weakened state, but he knew only too well that pride had always caused him more problems than it had ever solved.  She was right, and he knew it.  He muttered another thanks to his colleague, and immediately decided that when he got himself and his sentinel through their initial problems, he was going to take the time to do something really nice for Serena.  She had been a rock for him since the shit had first hit the fan, and he wanted her to know how grateful he was to have her there. 

 

Blair walked from his office in a slow, deliberate manner.  His head still throbbed, and his shielding, while holding, was a long way from it’s most effective.  He knew that in his present state, it would be far too easy to move too quickly and pass out.  To his relief, Serena matched his pace and didn’t say a word to him.  With the difficulty involved in both maintaining his shields and walking, he seriously doubted at that point that he could have added talking to his repertoire without something else giving.

 

They made it out of the Science Center without incident. The walk down the hall to the turbo lift was difficult, but Blair managed.  He rested against the wall of the turbo lift for the few seconds that it took for them to arrive on the level that security was located on.  Blair was beginning to relax in relief that he was going to make it to his Sentinel without embarrassing himself when the lift doors opened and he pried himself away from the wall to step out.  Unfortunately, as Blair stepped through the open doors, everything went to hell.

 

Just outside the turbo lift doors was a large man waiting to enter.  He was a tall, well-muscled individual, with a nondescript sort of face, and dressed in Security Red.  As Blair stepped off the turbo lift, the man’s eyes hardened slightly, and his jaw shifted.  Blair’s wavering barriers were hit with a wave of distaste that caused him to stumble slightly.  Blair could sense Serena hovering behind him, but he recovered and started to walk toward where he needed to go, just as the other man strode forward toward the turbo lift entrance.  Evidently Blair wasn’t moving quickly enough for the security officer’s taste, because as the larger man barged forward, his shoulder smashed directly into Blair’s.

 

The contact was only fleeting, but it was far too much for his strained barriers to take.  A wave of intense dislike and disgust washed over Blair like a tidal wave, sweeping away his tenuous hold on the mental images that held his barriers in place.  The dark emotions shot through his aching head like a knife, turning his stomach and draining the strength from his limbs.  Blair heard a cry of pain and protest that seemed to come from a very long way away, and the floor came rushing up to meet him before he even had time to realize that he had been the one to cry out.

 


 

When the turbo lift doors had opened, Serena had seen the large security officer immediately, but had thought nothing of it.  After all, they were heading to the Security Center.  What had caught Serena’s attention though, was the wave of dislike that had washed over them as Blair moved to step out.  Serena had just enough time to register her own confusion over this when Blair staggered, and Serena’s attention immediately focused itself on him.  For a second she thought that he was going to fall, but he recovered and moved with slow deliberation toward the Security Chief’s office, at the other end of the hall.  Unfortunately, before Blair could get out of the way, the large Security Office came barging through, and shoved directly into Doctor Sandburg.

 

Blair’s reaction was both immediate and stunning.  The young doctor let loose a scream of agony and dropped like a stone to the floor.  Even worse was the emotional backwash the young empath projected as his barriers disintegrated.  Serena forcibly swallowed the echoing scream that tore at her own throat, and dropped to her knees over the unconscious young man.  Her hands hovered several centimeter's above his body, wanting to touch him, to protect him, but knowing that without his barriers, she would hurt more than she would help.

 

“What?” A male voice demanded belligerently from above her.  “I hardly touched him!”

 

“Dr Sandburg is an empath.” Serena responded absently, her attention still focused on her unconscious colleague.  “Any kind of touch can be painful to an empath.”

 

“They shouldn’t let his kind on starships then.” The voice muttered darkly. “If they can’t be treated like real people then…”

 

What ever else the obnoxious man was going to say was cut off then with a small choking sound.  A wave of dark emotion suddenly hit Serena like a falling wall, and the profiler automatically turned to see what was happening.

 

The sight that met her eyes made Serena gasp in alarm and reach instinctively for her communicator.  “Commander Connor to Security, immediately!” she called, then dragged herself to her feet to plant herself as best she could between Blair and the nightmarish scene before her.

 

James Ellison had arrived.

 

She hadn’t heard him approach, but there he was.  His eyes were flat and hard, and there wasn’t anything even resembling a civilized man in them as he stood with his hand clamped around his subordinate’s throat, holding the man about ten centimeter's off the ground.  The security officer that had hurt Blair was clawing at his superior’s hand, and kicking his leg’s wildly as he fought for breath, but nothing the desperate man did was making even the slightest impression on Ellison. 

 

The man’s eye’s bugged out, and he began to make the most horrendous noises.  Fearful, frantic emotions battered at the edges of Serena’s awareness as the man fought for survival.  Ellison, on the other hand, had a face set in stone.  His grip on the other man was unwavering, and Serena was stunned by the thought of the sheer physical power such a display required.  Even more stunning though, was the total lack of emotional projection.  Serena wasn’t even picking up a trace of what the Sentinel was feeling.  Serena gaped for a moment, then realized with a shock that if Ellison kept it up, he was going to kill the man he held in his grasp. She was fairly sure that Ellison was exhibiting some sort of instinctive response to a threat to his Guide, but she couldn’t let the sentinel kill his enemy.  The man was a moron, but that wasn’t a good enough reason to be murdered.

 

“Commander Ellison!” Serena said as forcefully as she could manage.  “Stand down!”

 

Nothing.  The man didn’t even look at her.

 

“Commander Ellison, forget him!”  Serena tried again.  “He didn’t deliberately hurt Dr Sandburg.  There’s no need to kill him!”

 

Still nothing, and the security officer that Ellison was choking was beginning to turn blue.  Serena cursed the fact that she wasn’t carrying a phaser that she could conveniently use to stun Ellison.  She was about to make a dash for the security office to try to find one, when the unconscious science officer behind Serena suddenly emitted a soft moan.  Instantly, Ellison’s head snapped around, and his ice-blue eyes focused on the young empath.

 

Before Serena could say a word, Ellison released his grip on the man he was holding, allowing his victim to slide to the floor.  Serena stepped quickly to the side as Ellison stalked across the space separating him from his fallen Guide.  The big security chief knelt quickly and drew the young empath up into his arms, evidently oblivious to the frantic gasps for air being emitted by the man he had been so close to killing.  Serena could only stand gaping as the big man, so deadly and focused on the death of an opponent only a moment before, suddenly became gentle and infinitely careful as he checked over his Guide.  The Sentinel’s strong hands touched the smaller man’s body with such great care, that he might as well have been touching the most fragile of treasures.  There was something compelling about the way the older man looked at the young empath, and for a second, Serena almost forgot about the man struggling to regain both his breath and his composure behind her.

 

She was forcibly reminded of his presence when the turbo lift doors, which had closed automatically when no one had entered the turbo lift, suddenly opened again.  Serena whirled around at the sound of the doors, and found Megan Connor stepping out onto the deck.

 

The First Officer frowned down at the stricken security officer and quickly knelt down beside him.

 

“Commander Connor to Dr Baccus...” She snapped decisively as she hit her communicator and placed a restraining hand on the fallen man’s shoulder.

 

“No!” Serena hissed, drawing the First Officer’s attention to her instantly.  Megan’s eyebrow’s arched up toward her hairline in confusion as she caught sight of the frantic negative gestures that her friend was making.

 

“Dr Baccus here Commander.”  A disembodied, tinny voice responded.

 

Megan looked from Serena, to the man gasping on the floor next to her, and then over Serena’s shoulder, presumably at where James Ellison was tending to the insensate empath.  “Uhhh, Never mind.  Sorry to disturb you, Doctor.” The Commander replied absently, then cast her eyes over the rest of the inhabitants of the corridor once again.  Finally, the younger woman’s steel grey eyes latched onto Serena once more.  “Is it possible to get a situation run down in five words or less?” she inquired of her friend almost cheerfully.

 

Serena drew a deep breath.  “That guy knocked into Sandburg, who is an empath by-the-way.  Sandburg went down.  Ellison turned up.  Things got ugly.”

 

Megan quirked an eyebrow at Ellison, who didn’t seem even remotely interested in proceedings, then glanced back at Serena.  Serena bit her lip.  “Ahhhh, I think that, ummm, that… has something to do with what happened to those two yesterday.” Serena pulled an unhappy face at her friend to indicate that she wasn’t sure what had gone wrong, but that now might not be the best time to discuss it; whatever it was.  Megan blinked, then shook her head.  She then looked back at the security officer that had started it all. 

 

The man had dragged himself to the side to sit up against the wall.  His color had begun to return to normal, and he was no longer laboring for breath, but a livid bruise was already forming against his throat.  He was looking over at Ellison with an understandable mix of fury and fear evident in his eyes.

 

“That guy’s a manic!” he wheezed hoarsely.  “He should be thrown into the brig!  He should be…”

 

“Ahhh.” Megan’s eyes had slowly hardened during the man’s speech, and her sudden cool voice derailed the man’s tirade.  “Now I understand.” Megan nodded.  “Serena, did you say that Ensign Fallows ‘knocked’ Dr Sandburg here?”

 

“Yes.” Serena frowned in confusion.  She knew that particular look on her friend’s face, and it usually boded no good for the person it was aimed at.

 

“Would you say that it was a deliberate knock, on the part of Ensign Fallows?” Megan asked coolly, her eyes never leaving the security officer.

 

“It certainly looked it.” Serena acknowledged.

 

“Mmmmhumm.” Megan nodded, then glanced over Serena’s shoulder.  “Looks like Ellison is going to handle Sandburg.”

 

Serena turned in time to see Ellison carefully pick up the young scientist and turn to carry the smaller man down the hall to his own office.  Serena bit her lip again.  She felt that Ellison’s retreat with his Guide was probably for the best, but it might be difficult to explain that fact to her friend.  She glanced back toward Megan, and was surprised to realize that the First Officer had already dismissed the Sentinel and Guide from her attention.  She was looking back at the livid and spluttering Ensign Fallows with an intensity that would make a feeding shark seem casual.

 

“He’s just walking away?” the Ensign demanded incredulously. “He just picks up that… thing, and walks aw…” Ensign Fallows’ tirade ended in a sudden squeak as Megan’s hand landed on the juncture of his neck and shoulder in a deceptively nonchalant gesture.

 

“Captain Banks sent through a pile of crew files for me to review about forty minutes ago.  He’s a little busy right now to handle it himself, so he asked me to review the information sent through to him by Commander Ellison.” Megan said suddenly to Serena, without moving her hand from the Ensign’s neck.  Serena glanced at the Ensign and was surprised to note that he seemed to be changing color again.  Megan smiled slightly as she noticed the direction of Serena’s gaze.  “Ensign Fallows here was one of the first files I reviewed.” Megan continued pleasantly.  “I forwarded his file to you, by the way, but you weren’t at your station.  I was going to talk to you a little later, but since we’re all here, it seems like an excellent opportunity to look into the little problem Ensign Fallows’ records hint at.”  Megan’s smile became wolfish suddenly, as she looked down at the officer in question.  “Ensign, Dr Chang here is a trained psychiatrist and psychological profiler.  We’re going to have a chat about that little problem you seem to have.”

 

Megan removed her hand, and once again the Ensign was forced to desperately suck oxygen into his lungs.

 

After a second, he was sufficiently recovered to begin protesting again.  “You have no right to...!”

 

Once again, Fallows was cut off.  This time, his strident voice was stilled when Megan leaned over from her position on the floor next to him to whisper in his ear.  Serena watched in fascination as the large man blanched and tried to pull away.  Megan responded by grabbing a handful of hair and continuing to whisper. 

 

After a moment, Megan pulled back, leaving the Ensign looking at her in white-faced shock.  Megan smiled slightly, then motioned at the security officer to get up.  To Serena’s surprise, he did so without protest.  Megan smiled approvingly then also climbed to her feet.  The First Officer gestured for Serena to join her, and Serena did so quickly.

 

“Let’s all go to Dr Chang’s office, shall we?” Megan asked pleasantly, and then gestured to the turbo lift.  To Serena’s even greater surprise, the Ensign did as the First Officer suggested immediately, his eye’s very wide, and his face very pale.  Serena glanced over her shoulder toward the security center, wondering if she should leave Blair Sandburg just yet.  Then she glanced back at her friend and the large man standing so unnaturally still at her side, and realized that Jim Ellison was really the only thing that her section head needed at that point.  She could best assist him by dealing with Ensign Fallows and the potential threat that he represented to the pair.  Serena nodded almost absently to her friend and advanced into the turbo lift.

 

“So,” she said in the most professional voice that she could muster, “ what sort of a problem are we dealing with here?”

 

Megan cocked an eyebrow at her friend as the turbo lift doors slid shut.  “Seems that Ensign Fallows has a problem with anyone of the non-human persuasion…”

 


 

James Ellison had been about to go in search of his Guide when he’d heard the soft, rhythmic thumping that existed at the centre of his world now.  Ellison had relaxed back into his chair with a smile when he’d heard that sound.  His control of his senses had been becoming tenuous over the hours that he had been separated from Sandburg; they seemed to want to reach out to find something that lay beyond the constraints that he’d placed on them.  He understood now that his senses were instinctively hunting for his Guide.  He had tried to focus on keeping his internal ‘dials’ at the range he and Blair had worked together to determine as being ‘normal’.  Unfortunately, as the hours had passed, it had become harder and harder to fight his instincts.  He’d been about to give up on the exercise, when the sound of Blair’s approaching heartbeat had allowed him to relax.  His Guide had apparently decided to give him a reprieve. 

 

Ellison had been quite content to allow his young Guide to come to him, right up until the moment that he heard the empath cry out in pain, and felt the wave of hurt and anguish wash over him.  At that moment, the civilized man was once again pushed into the background as the instinct driven creature at the heart of the Sentinel burst forth, determined to protect it’s soul mate.

 

Ellison was only vaguely aware of what happened after that.  He had hazy memories of a large, belligerent man, standing over his Guide and a woman that seemed slightly familiar to him.  He seemed to recall the feeling of grim satisfaction that overcame him as he closed his hands around the large man’s throat.  He remembered the need to punish that had driven him, right up until he heard his Guide moan in pain, and an even stronger imperative had risen within him.

 

The need to take care of his fallen Guide had flooded through him.  He remembered running his hands over the empath’s body, in order to discover his hurts.  He had found no injuries, but the moment his hands had come to rest on the younger man, he’d felt the empath practically crawl into his nervous system and begin to soak up his mental strength.  The Sentinel had not been completely certain of what was happening to the Guide, but instinct whispered to him that he needed to get the vulnerable young man some place isolated.  Some place that he could watch over the Guide and keep him safe. 

 

So Ellison had picked his Guide up and taken him back through his office and into his own quarters.  Once there, he had locked the door and placed the insensate young man on his sleeping platform.  He had then crawled onto the platform with the Guide and wrapped himself tightly around his other half, in a desperate attempt to shield him from the rest of the world.

 

For Jim Ellison, the rest of the world had ceased to exist over the next few hours.  Several times, he heard the soft buzz of someone requesting entry to the room, but Ellison chose to ignore these sounds as unimportant.  The only important thing was Blair.  As long as Blair’s presence in his mind remained frightened and hurt and needy, James Ellison was more than ready to keep the rest of the world locked out.

 

Gradually, Blair’s presence lost the overtones of desperate need and painful confusion, and he eased down into what Jim felt was a peaceful and healing natural sleep.  Still Jim continued to hold him, needing on the deepest of instinctive levels to protect his other half while he was at his most vulnerable.  His physical presence seemed to be doing the empath far too much good to even consider laying Blair down on the platform and moving away.  And if he was being completely honest with himself, he would admit that touching Blair was doing him as much good as it was doing for his Guide.  For the first time since that morning, Jim was feeling comfortable with the newly awakened part of who he was.  While he was touching Blair, it was not difficult for him to control his senses.  While he was touching Blair, he felt connected to something larger than himself. 

 

While he was touching Blair, he felt, for the first time in his life, that he was no longer alone.

 

As he lay there holding his Guide, Jim Ellison decided that he would continue to touch the younger man, just as often as he could get away with.  His self-image of the tough, independent loner could be damned.  The satisfaction that this image had always given him was a weak, pale thing in comparison to the completion that he felt when ‘connected’ to Blair.

 

Eventually, Jim heard a small hitch in the empath’s breathing that suggested to him that his period of silent contemplation was almost over.  Blair was waking up.  Jim shifted his hold so that he had one hand free.  He then began to stroke his young charge’s forehead soothingly.  After a moment, Blair’s eyelids fluttered, then opened properly to gaze up at his Sentinel in sleepy-eyed confusion.

 

“Jim?” Blair whispered, his voice husky from sleep. “What happened, man?”

 

“You were hurt.” Jim replied quietly.  “I’m not really sure how.  I was hoping that you could tell me.”

 

Blair frowned, closed his eyes and wrinkled up his nose as he fought to remember what had happened to him.  To Jim’s relief and satisfaction, Blair didn’t even attempt to raise his head from where it lay on the Sentinel’s shoulder; in fact, if anything, the younger man seemed to curl in a little closer.

 

“I was coming to see you.” Blair murmured,  “My barriers were really low, and I had a stinking headache.”

 

Jim tensed slightly.  “Our being apart hurt you?” he asked, his voice heavy with concern.  Blair responded by frowning into the larger man’s shoulder without opening his eyes, and then raising a fist to thump weakly at the massive chest that was supporting him.

 

“Chill, Ellison.” Blair snorted.  “We’ve already had this conversation once.  I’m as new to this as you are.  I need to learn how to deal with it too.  Separation isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs for either one of us for a while.  But that’s okay, man.  It’s going to be tough, but we’ll cope.  Yes, I had a headache, and, yes, I had some problems, but Dr Chang, who is also an empath by-the-way, gave me some advice and it helped.”  Blair finally opened his eyes then, and frowned off at the far wall thoughtfully.  “I wasn’t feeling brilliant, but I would have been okay, but there was a man when I got off the turbo lift.  A big guy.  Security Ensign, I think.  He touched me.  It hurt.  I could feel every thing he was feeling…” Blair’s voice trailed off, and his face took on an anguished expression.    Jim growled deep in his throat at his Guide’s obvious hurt and pulled the younger man’s head back down to his chest

 

ENOUGH Blair!” the big man growled.  “Don’t think about him.  He’s unimportant, and he won’t be bothering you again.  Understood?”

 

Blair remained utterly still for a long minute, then began to struggle against the larger man’s confining hold.  Jim reluctantly allowed his arms to fall away, so that the scientist could push himself far enough away that he could look up into Jim’s face.  “How do you know this guy isn’t going to be a problem, man?” Blair asked quietly, his expression suddenly grim.  “What did you do?”

 

Jim snorted in exasperation.  “I didn’t kill him, Sandburg, if that’s what you’re asking.” He responded tartly.  ‘At least, I don’t think so.’ He amended to himself, although he saw no need to fill Blair in on that particular thought.  Jim was reasonably certain that some one would have come to collect him by now if he’d actually killed the bastard.  He was still going to have to make it up to Simon though, and their chances of getting into the neutral zone without someone finding out what was up with him had been significantly reduced, but these were all things that he could deal with later.  Right now, Blair still needed reassuring, so that was his first priority.

 

Blair, meanwhile, had sagged back to his Sentinel’s chest.  “Thank the Gods for that.” Blair sighed.  “You had me worried, there.”

 

“Calm down, Chief.” Ellison snorted.  “Everything’s okay.”  ‘At least for the time being.’ “How are you doing now?”

 

“Better.” Blair sighed into his partner’s chest.  “Still a little bit of a head ache, but it’ll be okay.”

 

“That’s good, kid.” Jim allowed his arms to come up around his Guide again, to give him a gentle, affectionate hug.  Blair relaxed against Jim and became heavier in his arms once more.  Jim leaned back slightly to look down at the young man resting against him.  The kid looked ready to drift off to sleep again.  “Hey, kid.  Do you think a little more sleep would help you to get rid of the rest of that headache?”

 

“Pro’ly.” Blair yawned, then pulled away from Jim and smiled up at his Sentinel sheepishly.  “I guess that sleep must be helping, ‘cause I usually get away with only a few hours a day.  I’ve already had more sleep today than I usually get in several days, and I’m still tired.”

 

Jim snorted.  “If you usually get by on only a few hours sleep a day, then you don’t sleep enough.  From now on, you’ll be looking after yourself a little better.”

 

Blair smiled and ducked his head, before looking back up at the larger man, his eyes sparkling with amusement.  “Jim, I’m half Vulcan.” He grinned, tucking a long, curly strand of hair behind one of his almost elfin shaped ears.  “My tolerance levels for exhaustion are a lot higher than an ordinary human’s are, man.”

 

“Your tolerance levels may be higher, but you still need to sleep.  If you don’t look after yourself properly, Sandburg, I’ll do it for you..” Jim spoke in a tone that allowed no room for negotiation.  Blair Sandburg was going to start taking better care of him self.  He resolutely ignored the little voice in the back of his head that was pointing out that the more time that Blair spent sleeping each night, the longer Jim would have to maintain the close physical contact with the younger man that he needed so badly.  At no point did it even occurred to Ellison that the two of them would not be sharing a sleeping platform.

 

A small spark of irritation lit up in Blair’s eyes, undoubtedly the result of Jim’s overbearing tone, but before he could say anything, he was hit by an enormous yawn that threatened to dislocate his jaw.  Jim merely raised his eyebrows and kept his expression as bland as possible.  Blair glared at him for a moment, before allowing a resigned grimace to touch his face.

 

“We’ll talk about this, later.” The younger man threatened.  Jim simply kept his expression neutral and nodded.

 

“I don’t doubt that for a moment.” He agreed. 

 

Blair sighed then and stifled yet another yawn.  Jim carefully reached out again, and cupped his hand around the back of his Guide’s neck.  “Blair, I know that you are an independent man, and you aren’t used to having someone telling you how to live, but try to remember that what happens to you, automatically effects me now.  I’m not trying to control you, kid.  I just want to protect you.”

 

Blair’s eyes softened profoundly and he reached up to place his own hand over Ellison’s.  “I know that, man.”  The empath breathed.  “I really do.  And I appreciate it.  But I do need you to remember that I’m an adult too, okay?”

 

Jim smiled slightly.  “Okay, Chief,” he said quietly.  “You think that you can get some more sleep now?”

 

Blair yawned mightily again.  “I don’t think that I’m going to have much choice.” he acknowledged sheepishly.  Jim smiled again and moved his hand to his Guide’s shoulder, gently applying pressure until the empath allowed himself to lie back down on the sleeping platform.  Jim watched carefully as Blair made himself comfortable.  The Sentinel would continue to watch over his Guide until the younger man was safely asleep once more.  Once Blair was asleep, he knew that there were things that would have to be dealt with, but for now they could wait. 

 

Jim settled himself so that his leg rested comfortably against Blair’s and prepared to watch over his charge until sleep took him once more.  Ellison doubted that he would have to wait long, if the sense of exhaustion that he was picking up from his Guide was anything to go by.  For a few long seconds, the young empath was silent.  Jim thought that he was relaxing toward sleep, but Blair suddenly reached out and grabbed hold of his Sentinel’s arm.  His intense blue eyes opened once more, and Jim arched his eyebrows at his friend in silent query.

 

“Jim,”  Blair said huskily, “I know that today was hard.  It was hard on both of us.  But I’m all right now, and so are you.  It was hard, but it’ll get better.  I need you to remember that for me.  Promise me that you won’t get all moody and over protective because I had a hard time.  Promise me that you’ll listen to me tomorrow, and work with me to learn to use your senses.  It’s the only way that we can take control of this.  Promise me?”

 

Jim looked down into the tired, but sincerely worried eyes of his Guide, and calmly caught hold of the younger man’s hand.  He loosely entwined their fingers.  “I promise.” he intoned gravely, and mentally touched the bond he shared with the empath, flooding the link between them with warm reassurance.  “Now sleep.” Ellison ordered.  “We have a lot to do in the morning.”

 

Blair smiled sleepily, and his contentment radiated back to Ellison along the link in soothing waves  “’Kay.” He whispered and finally allowed his eyes to drift shut.  Ellison kept the feelings of acceptance and reassurance flowing into his friend through the bond, and under that comforting influence, his Guide’s breathing quickly evened out he slipped into a deep and easy sleep.

 

Jim sat still and continued to allow the link between them to work its calming magic for a little while, until he was certain that the empath was not going to disturb again.  Then he forced himself to move off the sleeping platform and reluctantly disengaged his fingers from between Blair’s.  Blair frowned and shifted in his sleep, but Ellison was ready for this, and lay his hand against the younger man’s shoulder until he settled.  When he felt that Blair was comfortable again, Ellison removed his hand and carefully stepped away.

 

Instantly, Ellison’s senses rebelled, wanted to reach out to renew the contact with his sleeping Guide, but Ellison was ready for this too, and he steeled himself to mentally clamp down on the dials that Blair had had shown him, earlier that day.  He painstakingly set the sensitivity levels at the ‘normal’ settings that he and Blair had worked out that morning.  When he felt confident that he had everything under control, he quietly walked out of his sleeping quarters and into his office.

 

Ellison wasn’t even slightly surprised to find a message on his computer terminal, asking the security chief to contact the ship’s First Officer at his earliest convenience.  Ellison squared his shoulders, then hit his communicator.

 

“Ellison to Commander Connor.” He called.

 

“Commander Connor, here.” A female voice responded instantly.

 

“You wanted to see me, Commander?” Ellison queried as politely as he could.

 

“That’s right, Commander Ellison.” The woman responded.  “Are you in your office?”

 

“Yes, sir.” He acknowledged.

 

“Good.” The woman sounded far too amiable in Ellison’s opinion.  “Can you open a secure vid-line to my office?”

 

“Yes, sir.” He affirmed with an internal wince.  The First Officer wanted to speak to him directly, and didn’t want anyone else to hear what she had to say.  That probably didn’t bode well.  Ellison quickly sat down at his desk, and opened the secure vid-line that the Commander had asked for.

 

Ellison found himself looking directly at his First Officer for the first time.  He recognized her voice from the med centre, when he and Blair had bonded, but could not recall what she had had to say about the situation.  He had been far too focused on Blair to take in the content of the conversations taking place in the doctor’s office, he’d simply registered the voices.  Now he found himself looking at the young woman on the vid screen, and wondering whether she would prove to be an ally or an enemy.

 

The woman looked at him levelly for a long minute, before leaning back in her chair.  To Ellison’s surprise, she smiled at him.

 

“Nice to finally meet you properly, Ellison.” She grinned.  “I’ve heard so much about you.”

 

“Oh?” Ellison tried to keep his face impassive.  “Good things, I hope.”

 

“Actually, yes.” The Commander grinned.  “Captain Banks has raved about you, and his belief that you’re still the best man for the job after yesterday’s fiasco says one hell of a lot about his faith in you.  I haven’t known Captain Banks long, but he strikes me as the kind of man that doesn’t develop that strong a good opinion of someone lightly.  Your pick up of that staffing disaster today did a lot to confirm his good opinion of you.”

 

“Thank you.” Ellison responded neutrally.

 

“Commander, I’ll get to the point here,” The First Officer leaned forward, her eyes intense.  “Dr Chang has done her best to fill me in on your - situation.  I myself have come to this ship from the intelligence area of Starfleet.  I have a fair idea of what you’d be facing if word of your capabilities got out.”

 

“Oh?” Ellison was careful to keep all signs of emotion from his face.

 

“To that end, I’ve made arrangements to have Ensign Fallows kept out of circulation, until after we’re in the Neutral Zone.” Connor raised an eyebrow at him significantly.

 

Ellison nodded his understanding. “So what’s the catch?” he asked carefully.

 

“No catch.” The Commander replied.  “This assignment is just as much my way out of a bad situation as it is yours.  It’s going to be a shitty assignment, and I want someone competent in the position you fill.  In addition to Captain Banks good opinion of you, there are a lot of people from our old area who say the same thing.  And with those – enhancements -- of yours, I can only see you getting better for the role.” The woman suddenly sighed and leaned back in her seat again, and for the first time, her eyes reflected the bitter experiences that had gained her the First Officer position.  “I also believe in going with what my gut tells me.” She added quietly.  “And my gut tells me that you and Doctor Sandburg are good people.  I’ve seen too many good people destroyed by an organization that is supposedly there to protect the citizens of the Federation.  I don’t want the weight of two more lost souls on my conscience, Commander Ellison.”

 

James Ellison stared at the woman before him for a long moment, trying to judge the truth of her words.  She met his gaze unflinchingly, and eventually, he nodded in acceptance.

 

“Again, thank you.” he said quietly.

 

“Thank me by looking after this ship, Ellison.” the woman responded.

 

“I will.” Ellison vowed.

 

“Good.” Connor grinned.  “Then we understand each other.  Get some sleep, Commander.  We’ve got a little over five days to get this ship up to speed, and we still have a long way to go.”

 

“Very good, sir.” Ellison nodded grimly.

 

“Good.” The First Officer grinned.  “Oh, by the way Ellison,” the young woman added, almost as an after thought, “while I approve of your method of dealing with Fallows in principle, you might want to avoid the overt displays of temper.  Hiding a body in space dock would prove to be a real bitch.  Connor Out.”

 

Ellison stared at the suddenly blank vid terminal for a long moment, before allowing himself a small smile.  He wasn’t ready to declare the First Officer friend or foe just yet.  Covert ops had taught him too much about the dangers of not looking a gift horse in the mouth, for that.  But he was ready to admit that the woman would bare watching until he had a more complete picture of where she was coming from, and there was a good possibility that she would prove to be genuine.

 

Jim Ellison stood and stretched languidly.  What ever happened with the first officer, for the time being, his troubles were solved.  With the ease of long practice, the ex-covert operative put dire possibilities from his mind and focused on addressing the situation as it stood.  And as it stood, the Sentinel’s first priority was to help his Guide get over the traumas of the day.  Something that he couldn’t do from his office.  So without any further thought or hesitation, Ellison returned to his sleeping quarters and made his way quickly to his Guide.

 

Ellison stripped off his uniform, hoisted himself onto the sleeping platform, and carefully arranged himself around his sleeping Guide.  Within ten minutes, his breathing pattern had synchronized with the other man, and the Sentinel allowed himself to drift into sleep.

 


 

Once again, Blair Sandburg woke up long before his Sentinel began to stir.  The lifetime of semi-isolation that his empathy had inflicted upon him had left him unprepared for the sensation of waking up with a warm body wrapped securely around his. 

 

Blair had always had a great deal of mental discipline, and this had allowed him to maintain an active social life.  His mental barriers had always been good enough that sex wasn’t really a problem for him, as it was with some empaths.  No matter how heated a sexual encounter became, he had always been able to maintain the thread of where he ‘ended’ emotionally, and his partner ‘began’.  His empathy had always been a blessing in that way.  It allowed him to know exactly what his lover needed, and he had always been able to provide.  Unfortunately, even his high levels of discipline weren’t enough to cope with the constant pressure of physical contact during sleep.  In sleep, barriers couldn’t be maintained by visualization.  In sleep, an empath became vulnerable.  For this reason, Blair had never, until now, known what it was like to wake up in someone else’s arms.

 

He was almost embarrassed by how much he enjoyed the experience.

 

Blair’s half-Vulcan physiology was geared to have a higher tolerance for heat than cold, and the standard environment set on Federation starships was designated to fall into the tolerance ranges of the highest number of life forms possible. Blair could cope with it, of course, but the artificial environment fell into the outside edges of what he could cope with comfortably.  When he slept at night though, his body temperature would drop, and Blair always seemed to end up feeling cold and miserable. 

 

In the two mornings since his bonding though, he had awakened with a natural heat source wrapped comfortingly around him.  It was so damned nice to be able to slide into consciousness feeling warm and content, instead of cold and uncomfortable, that Blair practically wanted to purr in pleasure when he opened his eyes and realized that he was not alone.

 

In addition to the pure creature comfort associated with waking up warm, Blair was also amazed to realize that sleeping with his Sentinel laying against him had somehow helped his fried mental barriers repair themselves.  He was no longer in pain, nor was his mind clouded with exhaustion or the confusion of outside influences.  In fact, he felt more comfortable and in control than he usually felt first thing in the morning.  The scientist in Blair was intrigued by this.  He understood that his usual morning empathic discomfort was simply a by-product of his sleeping mind picking up on the extremely mild electrical field that surrounded all living things.  As an empath, he was exceptionally sensitive to all of those little signs of life and sentience that most life forms were completely oblivious to.  His usual discomfort had been absent on the two mornings that he had awakened with Jim nearby.  Blair wondered if bonding had caused some sort of change to occur within him, or whether the necessity of bonding with an empath had caused some sort of adaptation to develop within the Sentinels themselves, that allowed them to empathically shield their Guide.  Blair mentally made a note to try to come up with some method of testing this.

 

Thoughts of tests, though, lead Blair inevitably to the fact that he and his Sentinel still had a long way to go before they could stand before the Captain, and declare that they had met the challenge that he had set them.  With only five days left to meet that challenge, Blair knew that he couldn’t afford to be laying around, thinking about things that were not urgently important in assisting them to gain control of their situation, no matter how comfortable and content he felt.

 

Blair sighed and forced himself to sit up, earning a disapproving grunt from his human pillow.  Blair couldn’t help the grin that touched his face as the larger man automatically roused slightly from his sleep and tried to pull his Guide back down to him.  Blair caught the seeking hands in his own, and squeezed them gently.

 

“’Sokay, man.” He crooned softly.  “Nothing’s wrong.  Go back to sleep for a bit.”

 

Blair’s grin grew as the Sentinel grumbled unhappily in his sleep, then rolled over, so that his back was pressed firmly against his Guide’s leg.  Blair knew only too well that he was going to have to go through the process of settling the Sentinel again when he got off the bed in a moment, but there was something extraordinarily satisfying about the fact that Ellison was so deeply attuned to him.  It made Blair feel needed and appreciated, something that he hadn’t experience much in life.  He found that he liked the feeling.

 

As predicted, Blair had to reassure the Sentinel once more when he forced himself to slide off the sleeping platform and onto his feet.  He remained by the sleeping platform for a moment, petting his Sentinel’s face and arms reassuringly, until the big man settled, them mentally prepared himself for moving away. 

 

Yesterday morning when he had tried this, the discomfort of being an empath with no barriers had hit him immediately.  This morning, he took a moment to mentally construct a barrier that encompassed both his Sentinel and himself, as well as the bond that linked them.  He had been surprised at how easy it was to construct an image of Jim in his mind the day before.  This time, without the over-load induced migraine to work through, it was almost pathetically easy to do.  The necessary image of Jim almost leapt into his mind, as though he had been constructing such images of the man all his life.

 

Then he thought about the sense of completion the big man had brought him and the awareness of his own contentment brought him up short.  ‘Perhaps,’ he thought whimsically, ‘I feel as though I’ve been visualizing him my whole life, because on some level, I have been.’

 

Blair shook off the strange mood that had descended on him at this thought, and carefully constructed the rest of the barrier.  The image in his mind was clear and ‘solid’, and he felt no doubt that it would allow him to maintain control.  Unfortunately, the image was not second nature to him, as the old image had been, and it took a lot more of his concentration to maintain.  He knew that Serena had been right about his new barrier.  In time, it would become as instinctual a thing as maintaining his old one had been, but time really wasn’t a thing that they had a great deal of at that point.  As much as he would like to spend the time getting comfortable with his new barrier before pushing on, Blair knew that it was a luxury that he couldn’t afford at that point.

 

Blair sighed and gave a mental shrug of resignation.  He was a smart guy.  He could multitask with the best of them.  He’d just have to get used to the fact that there would be one less thing he could think about at any given time; at least until he got his barriers back to being an automatically maintained task, anyway.

 

Blair quickly ducked into his own quarters and pulled on a fresh uniform.  He performed his morning ablutions as quickly as possible, grabbed his data pad, and then hurried back to his Sentinel’s room.  He grabbed his glasses from the small table in the corner of the room, then hauled himself up so that he was sitting on the edge of Ellison’s sleeping platform again.  The Sentinel made a soft sighing sound as Blair settled himself, and instantly curled in to his Guide again, making Blair’s grin renew itself.  Blair held himself still until he was certain that Ellison wasn’t going to wake up properly and then began to write down a record of what had happened to them both the day before.

 

He had been scribbling onto the tablet for a while, when his Sentinel’s voice suddenly beside him made him jump slightly.

 

“You know, kid,” The large man drawled sleepily, “you could just dictate what ever it is you’re writing to the computer.  It’d have to be easier than what you’re doing.”

 

Blair looked irritably across at the man laying on his back and looking up at him with sleepy-eyed amusement.  “Warn me that you’re awake next time, man.” The empath growled.  “You almost made me fall off the bed!”

 

“Sorry.” Jim grinned unrepentantly.

 

Blair snorted.  “Riiight.” He drawled sarcastically, which only served to make his Sentinel’s grin grow wider.  Blair shook his head resignedly, then repositioned his glasses on his nose.  “And for your information man, I’m writing about us, here, so recording it directly to the ships computer might be quicker, but it wouldn’t necessarily be better.” He said loftily.

 

“Ahhh.” Ellison responded sagely.  “Why’re you writing about us?”

 

“Cause there isn’t any pre-existing data available on people like us.” He paused then, before continuing.  “Well, nothing complete, anyway,” he amended.  “We’re going to have to work all of this out as we’re going along, so it’d be a good idea for us to maintain our own reference records.  Writing about glitches as they occur might help us in figuring out solutions for future problems.” Blair explained.

 

“Makes sense.” Jim allowed, with an enormous stretch, which once again threatened to knock Blair off his perch.  Blair shot his Sentinel another dirty look, and Jim awarded him with another unrepentant grin.

 

Blair gave a small sigh, and decided that a sleepy, content Jim was just naturally difficult.  He looked at his grinning Sentinel and in spite of his resolve to remain serious, felt an answering grin tug at his own face.  ‘So much for remaining professional.’ he thought with an internal sigh. 

 

Jim patted his leg then, and pulled himself up into a sitting position.  “So, what’s the plan for today, Chief?” Jim asked amiably. 

 

Blair cocked an eyebrow at his mellow tone, and decided that sharing a sleeping platform did the Sentinel as much good as it did the Guide.  “Well,” Blair said slowly, “that depends a lot on you, man.  We’ve still got to get ready for the mission date, as well as get a handle on the whole Sentinel/Guide thing.  My department’s pretty small.  There’s still a bit that I have to do, but there’s probably a lot more that you have to do to get this ship ready for a mission into what basically amounts to hostile territory.  I thought that we could look at what you still have to do, and see if we can’t look for ways to work on your control, while we’re getting other stuff done.”

 

“What about your control?” Jim asked in concern.  “I don’t want to be carrying you back here unconscious again kid.”

 

Blair felt a familiar warmth blossom inside him at his Sentinel’s concern.  He quickly sent out feelings of reassurance through the link.  “I’ll be with you, big guy,” he smiled, “so I’ll be okay.  I think I’ve got a handle on what the problem was yesterday.  I’ll be fine, man.  We need to work on developing your control for now.”

 

Jim suddenly looked a lot less amiable.  His jaw clenched, and he seemed to be thinking something through.  Blair waited, and was rewarded with a sudden sharp look from the Sentinel.  “You’ll be with me?” he asked quietly.

 

“Right next to you, big guy.” Blair smiled reassuringly.

 

“All right, Chief.” Ellison said decisively. “You’re the boss, so we’ll do it your way.  But the instant you start getting one of those headaches, kid, we’re finished.  Got it?”

 

Blair held his hands up in a conciliatory manner.  “What ever you say, big guy.” He grinned.

 

“Okay.” Ellison relaxed ever so slightly then.  “There’s one hell of a lot that I still need to do, Chief.  I’d like to check through the armory, and then make sure the security sensors on each of the levels are working today.”

 

Blair raised his eyebrows mildly.  “That all?” he asked sarcastically.

 

“You said it yourself,” Ellison shrugged.  “we’ve got to be ready for the mission date, in addition to anything else.  We don’t have a lot of time to play with here.”

 

“Right.” Blair acknowledged with a slow nod and a thoughtful frown.  “Good thing I’m so adaptable, intelligent and stoic though, or I might find trying to do all of that and helping to teach you sorta overwhelming.”  Blair caught sight of the disgusted look that his Sentinel was giving him out of the corner of his eye, and allowed the snigger that he’d been suppressing to escape.  Ellison rolled his eyes dramatically and then cuffed him lightly around the head.

 

“Hey!” Blair whined dramatically.  “Watch the hair, man!”

 

“Jerk.” Ellison growled, his eyes twinkling with fond amusement.  Blair looked at his Sentinel and gave him an enormous, shit-eating grin, and Jim shook his head in mock exasperation.  “Seriously, though, Chief,” Ellison continued, and Blair was pleased to note that the big man’s jaw had finally unclenched, “We going to be able to do all of that as well as sorting out my senses today?”

 

“It’ll be a long day,” Blair shrugged, “But I don’t see why not.  We might even find some ways to use those senses of yours to help streamline the job.  But just remember one thing Ellison.  The same rules that apply to me, apply to you.  You get tired or headachy, you let me know and we stop.” Blair’s voice took on a hard edge at these words, and his tone would brook no argument.  “We might not have one hell of a lot of time to play with, here, but I’m not going to put you at risk either.  This is way too new for either of us to risk pushing too hard just yet.  I’d rather not get everything done than have you collapse in a heap and give Baccus any more ammunition.”

 

“Yes, mother.” Jim smirked.

 

This time it was Blair who smacked at his partner playfully.  “And you have the nerve to call me a jerk?” he demanded incredulously.  Blair shook his head and gave his partner a look of mock irritation.  “Okay then, man.  What’re you doin’ still laying there?  You’ve gone and set us a bitch of a schedule for the day, and we ain’t gonna get it done by laying around here talking about it.  Get your lazy Sentinel butt outa bed and go get ready.  I can hear duty calling us.”

 

“You’re going to be a pushy little shit, aren’t you?” Ellison responded mildly, amusement making his eyes sparkle.

 

“Absolutely.” Blair shot back with the absolute assurance of someone that knows himself very well indeed.  Ellison sighed, and then heaved himself upright.  The large man began to swing his legs off the bed, but then hesitated.  Blair frowned as he caught a flicker of embarrassment in the Sentinel’s eyes as he glanced toward his Guide. 

 

Blair focused quickly on the link and realized immediately that there was something that the big man wanted from him, although the Sentinel was doing his level best not to let even a hint of it through the bond.  Blair leaned forward immediately and caught at Ellison’s sleeve. 

 

“What?” the young man blurted in alarm, instantly worried that his Sentinel was trying to hide something from him.

 

Ellison caught the wave of concern that flowed though the link and instantly became alarmed himself.  “What, what?” he demanded in confusion.

 

“You need something…” Blair’s voice trailed off.  “You were hiding something from me.  There’s a problem that you don’t want me to know about.  You can’t hide things from me, Jim.  I can’t guide you properly if you try to hide things from me!”

 

To Blair’s surprise, the other man responded to his concern with an embarrassed grimace, and a slight blush.  “Oh.” He said quietly.  “Don’t worry about it kid.” the bigger man sighed.  “It wasn’t anything urgent.”

 

“Tell me anyway.” Blair commanded.

 

Jim sighed and ran a hand over his face.  “It’s stupid!” Covert-ops trained Rangers did not, as a rule, whine.  Ellison’s tone in this case though was edging dangerously close to being just that.

 

“Jesus, James!” Blair growled in exasperation. “I don’t care how stupid you think it is.  Tell me what the problem is!”

 

Ellison grimaced again, and then glanced down at the sleeping platform.  “It’s not urgent.” He said quietly, “I mean, I could do it on my own.  You showed me how yesterday.  It’s… I would appreciate it if…”

 

“You want me to guide you through setting the levels again.” Blair said quietly as epiphany suddenly struck.

 

“Yeah.” Ellison raised his head and his expression was carefully neutral.  Blair didn’t need the link to tell him that the tension that he had so carefully coaxed Jim into letting go was back again.  “But it’s not important.  You taught me it yesterday and I’m sure that I won’t have a problem with it.  I’ve already got the levels set in my memory, and as you pointed out, my memory is almost perfect.”

 

Blair simply sat and stared at the older man.  Almost absently, he wondered who it was that had convinced James Ellison that learning wasn’t a process, and that you should be able to do everything right, first time.  He was suddenly intensely grateful that Ellison had no empathic training under his belt.  Jim couldn’t hide anything from his Guide just yet.  If the man was going to try to keep even such a small and easily fixed problem from him, he was going to have to do some major work on eradicating this fear his Sentinel seemed to have of being rejected on the grounds of being human.  Blair didn’t even want to think about how difficult his job would become if Ellison learned how to work within the bond before he learned that he could and should tell his Guide everything.

 

Wordlessly, Blair reached out and caught Ellison’s hand before the taller man could slide off of the platform and away from him.  He carefully placed the Sentinel’s palm flat against his chest before speaking. 

 

“Jim, when you were learning to fire a phaser, were you a perfect shot from the first time you picked one up?”

 

“No.” Ellison admitted, although he seemed embarrassed by that fact.  “I was pretty good though.” he added defensively.

 

Blair sighed.  “But you’re a perfect shot now.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact.  Being able to use a phaser effectively was part of Ellison’s job.  He’d already worked out that Ellison was the kind of man that made sure that he could do anything he was required to do about ten times better than everyone else.

 

“Yes.” Jim acknowledged, although, perversely, his acknowledgement was made with no hint of pride.

 

“How did you become a perfect shot?” Blair questioned patiently.

 

“By spending all my free time at the firing range.” Ellison replied, his eyes narrowing.

 

“And yet you think that this is somehow different.” Blair sighed, his thumb beginning to gently stroke the back of the hand that he held to his chest.  “Setting the levels is just another skill that requires mastering Jim.  All skills need to be practiced.  In the beginning, you need to practice to get it right.  Later, you need to practice so that the skills remain sharp.  Jim, I’m not going to teach you something, and then expect you to have it down cold after that first time.  I hope that you aren’t going to expect that of me, either, ‘cause I’ve gotta tell ya, man” Blair allowed a self depreciating smile to touch his lips, “I can turn making a mess of something into an art form.  If you need my help with something, tell me.  I don’t expect for you to learn something and then never mention it again.  I don’t even want that.  In fact, I’m hoping that we’re still practicing these skills together until we’re both old men, man, ‘cause that’ll mean that you still need me.”

 

Blair watched as Jim’s eyes became fierce with emotion at that last comment.  The Sentinel allowed his Guide to keep hold of the hand that was resting against his chest, but impulsively reached out to hook the other hand around the back of Blair’s neck.  “I’ll always need you!” the taller man growled in a tone that carried more than a hint of the feral sentinel that lay below the surface.

 

“Then prove it to me by telling me when you need me.” Blair responded calmly.  Jim looked back at him helplessly, and Blair could feel the Sentinel’s internal conflict.  Someone, somewhere, had taught Jim that need was a weakness.  Blair knew that changing that deeply held belief was going to take time and patience.  He squeezed the hand he held to his chest reassuringly, and allowed his feelings of love and acceptance to flow to his partner freely.  Blair smiled slightly to acknowledge the relief that showed in the big man’s eyes as he realized that Blair understood and wouldn’t expect him to throw off a life time’s worth of conditioning in a few days.  Things would change though.  On that point, Blair was absolutely determined.  He would help Jim learn to trust, no matter how long it took.  With that silent pledge to himself, Blair got down to the business of guiding his Sentinel.

 

Ten minutes later, Jim was sliding off the sleeping platform, relaxed and confident that he would be able to return his senses to the ‘normal’ settings, no matter what his Guide asked him to try throughout the day.  Blair continued to sit on the platform, watching his partner contentedly.  Blair could sense the Sentinel’s pleasure at being able to control his senses, instead of being controlled by them, and was inundated by pleasure himself at the knowledge that he had given his partner that gift.  The young scientist continued to watch as his partner stretched and went to the replicator for his morning cup of coffee.  He was aware of the silly grin that was plastered across his face, but felt too good right at that moment to worry overly about wiping it off in favor of a more professional expression.

 

A moment later, Ellison wandered back to his Guide and held a steaming mug out to the younger man.  Blair took it, and sipped the hot liquid appreciatively.

 

“Well, I’m up, as requested.” Ellison drawled.  “However, I can’t help noticing that you remain where we started.”

 

“Man, I was up hours ago.” Blair snorted.  “I’m ready to go whenever you are.  You go get ready for work.  I’m just going to finish off what I was writing earlier.” The younger man gestured at the discarded data pad.  “I want to finish what I was writing before we head off.  I want to keep as accurate an account of what we encounter as I can, so I need to get it all down as quickly as possible.”

 

“Okay, kid.” Ellison smiled fondly.  The taller man hesitated for a moment, then suddenly reached out and clasped Blair’s shoulder.  “Thanks, Sandburg.”  Ellison said quietly.

 

“No problem, man.” Blair replied gently.  Ellison nodded, then turned and walked away to get ready for the coming day, while Blair went back to his writing, his mind full of ideas on how to begin the task of teaching his Sentinel to use the amazing gift that he had been given.

 


 

The day that followed was, for Jim Ellison, full of amazing discoveries.  Discoveries about what he could do as an on-line Sentinel, of what his Guide could do, and what they could do together.  Eight hours into the day, and he was forced to admit that his Sentinel abilities were not really helping him to streamline the monotonous job of checking that all of the equipment and systems were working.  In fact, he knew perfectly well that if he had tackled the day without allowing Blair to distract and coach him through using his senses, he might actually have finished the list of tasks he’d set himself to do today by now.  Still, he could not regret the time he had spent allowing his Guide to help him in developing his control over the ‘gift’.  He was, if nothing else, a practical man, and he had learned too much today that would prove beneficial in his task of protecting the ship to mourn a little lost time.

 

Jim acknowledged that he had been a little skeptical when Blair had first interrupted him from the task at hand.  He had been looking through the armory, making sure that all of the hand-held weapons had come off the production line fully functional.  Like anything else that was manufactured, there were inevitably a few duds, and the middle of combat was not the time to discover a malfunctioning phaser.  He’d hoped that Blair would be able to help him in the tedious task of breaking the weapons down to ensure that everything was as it was supposed to be, but the younger man had just grimaced and told his Sentinel that weapons were not his thing.  Blair had, apparently, learned the barest minimum that he could get away with and still pass through the academy when it came to weapons training.  Unfortunately for the Sentinel, the security staff was in tatters since yesterday’s revelations about the inappropriateness of some of its crewmembers.  Until new crew could be found, security was desperately understaffed.  Jim had been trying to think of someone else he could pull in to assist him, when Blair had suddenly said that he wanted to try something.

 

Jim had assumed that Blair had thought of a way of using his senses to get through the job quicker, so he had agreed immediately.  Now as he thought about it, he was forced to smile and acknowledge that that had been the first lesson of the day: 

 

When the Guide says that he’s got an idea, press him for details before agreeing to anything. 

 

Blair had suggested that he would be able to hear the energy signature of the weapon if he focused on his hearing.  Jim had said that he didn’t know how that was supposed to help.  Blair had suggested that it might assist him in locating dud’s more quickly.  Jim had responded, with eminent reasonableness that he couldn’t afford to assume that a dud gun would be given away by it’s energy signature.  Blair had pointed out that he couldn’t just assume that it wouldn’t.  Jim had responded that the knowledge that the weapon had sounded okay would be cold comfort if he got into a firefight and discovered that it wasn’t.  Blair had then pouted like a five-year-old and reminded him that he’d already said that he’d do it.  Jim had been feeling a little crotchety at his Guide’s unreasonableness at this point, so he had mentally grabbed hold of the dial for hearing and turned it up to simply get the little task out of the way.

 

That had been the second lesson of the day:

 

Any sudden movement of the dials when one really didn’t know what one was doing was a baaad thing.

 

By the time his young Guide had eased him out of the sensory-spike induced zone-out, Jim had been ready to write the day off and go back to bed.  It wasn’t that he was chicken-shit, as his grimly determined little guide had suggested when Ellison had said that he was going back to his room.  It was just that… well… it had hurt, Goddammit!  Blair had simply folded his arms while the Sentinel had raved about his stupid ideas, and had pointed out in an irritatingly reasonable tone that the idea hadn’t been stupid, it had been Ellison’s childish response to the idea that had been stupid.  Jim had ranted and raved some more, and had been absolutely determined to just walk out, if his partner was going to be so careless with him.  Unfortunately, just as he’d been about to put this plan into effect, he’d felt a wave of anguish pass through the bond.  Against his will, he found himself looking down into Blair’s impossibly big, sadly disappointed blue eyes, and that had been it.  Something had just flopped over in his brain, and he’d found himself returning to his Guide, suddenly desperate to make amends for his own careless behavior.

 

That had been the third, and possibly most important lesson of the day:

 

Don’t argue with your Guide.  In the end, resistance is futile.  Protect your dignity, and just agree to what ever he suggests, as soon as he suggests it.

 

Blair had then sat him down, and coached him through carefully turning up the dial, and focusing solely on the sound he was looking for.  To Ellison’s surprise, he found that he could, with help, tune out the sounds from beyond the armory that had overwhelmed him before and listen to the sounds of his weapon.  He found that he could indeed hear the weapon’s energy signature, as his Guide had suggested.  Blair had been thrilled with his success, and had assured him that with practice, he’d be able to tune out unwanted input to his senses all on his own.  Blair had looked at him with such delight and pride, that Jim had felt ten feet tall and phaser proof.  He decided that following his Guide’s instructions was a doable thing, if the kid was going to look at him like he was the most amazing person in the universe.  No one had ever thought of him that way before.

 

Jim had continued to break down the phasers, because, in the end, his original argument had still stood, but Blair had continued to coach him through using his senses to ‘listen’ to the weapons.  In doing this, Jim discovered that weapons of the same make produced the exact same frequency hum.  This was an extremely useful thing to know, as the chances were, the only people that would be using Starfleet weapons in the Neutral Zone would be Starfleet officers.  There were so many types of sentient life forms in Starfleet, that tracking enemies by their life signals was impractical.  But recognizing the energy signature of Starfleet weapons would help him locate enemies, if they were engaging in guerilla warfare.  Of course, a weapon could be removed from it’s owner, so as an idea, it wasn’t perfect, but it would help.  Blair had assisted him in setting the various weapon’s energy signatures in his near perfect memory.   Jim had then called in two of his remaining officers to assist him in completing the task of checking the weapons.  Once that was done, they had moved on.

 

From the armory, they had descended to the lowest level of the ship, and had begun to check the security sensor grids, section by section.  It would have been another mind-bogglingly boring job, except for Blair.  The young empath had talked Jim into seeing if he could ‘feel’ the security grid.  It had taken a few tries for Jim to learn how to tune out the suddenly unbearable roughness of his clothes against his skin when he turned up the mental dial for touch.  Once he got past that though, he realized that he could indeed feel a tingling in his skin from the supposedly imperceptible rays of the security net.  Jim had commented that being able to feel a security grid was going to be a handy skill to possess, and Blair had immediately decided that it was a skill that they should try to refine.  And, of course, since Blair was enthused about the idea right at that moment, it was going to be refined NOW.

 

They started off by playing around with the settings on the security grids in the holding compartments, where they weren’t likely to run into as many people.  Ellison had put in a command that nobody was to enter the storage area of the ship without signaling him, as he was testing equipment, just to be on the safe side.  Then Blair had begun to coach him.

 

Within a short while, Jim could tell without looking at the grid monitor whether the security grid was off, or set to a lower, medium, or high setting.  He could feel the intensity of beams.  A low intensity setting was like being given a gentle massage by millions of tiny fingers.  A high intensity setting felt like millions of tiny pins pressing against his skin.  Within a short while, Jim found that he could tell before he even walked into a compartment, whether Blair had switched the security system in the compartment on, and what setting he’d left it on at.  Blair had been elated with his progress. 

 

Jim had been pretty pleased too.  So much so, in fact, that when Blair had suggested that they use his senses to check the security grids in the rest of the ship, Jim had agreed without argument.  Blair had explained that it was going to be a lot more difficult to do with so many more life forms, and so many more distractions around, but Jim had remained mellow.  After all, what good was his new skill if he couldn’t use it under distracting conditions.  And truth-be-told, he wasn’t too worried about losing control of his senses, even out amongst the rest of the crew.  Jim knew that Blair would be with him, and ultimately, that was really all the safety-net that he needed.

 

Jim knew that if Blair had been thinking past his goal of helping his Sentinel gaining control of his senses, the young scientist would have been amazed at the level of trust inherent in the older man’s easy agreement with his suggestion.  Under normal circumstances, Jim would never have agreed to risk either a sensory-spike, or one of those God-awful zone-out things anyplace that someone might witness it.  But as Blair had worked to teach his Sentinel control that morning, Jim had been watching and learning about his Guide, and he was fairly certain that he had picked up on a few things that not even Blair had consciously realized yet.

 

It seemed that the empathic link that allowed Jim to tune-in to what his Guide could sense, had a function that worked in the opposite direction as well.  Ellison had quickly noticed that whenever he was extending himself, it became harder for him to keep the levels that he and Blair had set together in mind.  Yet whenever he felt his fragile control begin to slip away from him, Blair would suddenly be right there.  His Guide would touch his shoulder, or back, and suddenly the connection would be a physical, tangible thing running between them again.  Blair’s touch would allow him to remember where those ‘normal’ levels where, and kept him from getting lost amidst the mountains of information his senses wanted to bombard him with.  It was uncanny really.  Somehow, Blair just instinctively knew when Jim was beginning to lose it, and would quietly and unobtrusively move to anchor him.  It seemed to be such an automatic thing on the empath’s part, that Jim doubted that the younger man had even noticed that he was doing it.  Still it was this instinctive knowledge on his Guide’s part, which allowed Jim Ellison to take the risk of using his senses in public for the first time.

 

Blair didn’t let him down, either.  As the day progressed, Ellison found himself more and more in awe of the younger man.  And it wasn’t just Blair’s ability to identify and solve problems before they could become major issues that won Ellison’s respect.  It was the kid’s ability to camouflage what they were doing while they were standing right out in the open.

 

Jim acknowledged that when they’d walked onto the bridge of the ship for the first time, he’d been ready to suggest that they try someplace where they’d be a little less conspicuous to start off with.  But Blair had just produced his most dazzling smile and had announced to the technicians scurrying about that they had some new security equipment to check, that they wouldn’t be long, and that they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.  To Ellison’s amazement, after the automatic and initial interest of people ‘checking out’ the Science Officer and the Security Chief, no one had paid them the slightest notice.  Somehow, Blair just seemed to exude such an air of normalcy that no one seemed inclined to pay the Sentinel and Guide any attention.  Ellison couldn’t help but wonder if that was an empath thing, or a Sandburg thing.  What ever it was, it was damned useful, because it kept anyone from noticing the few brief zone-outs that he did have.

 

 By the time they’d worked their way from the Bridge, through the Comp Tech’s area, down through Science and into Engineering, Jim was feeling better about himself than he had for a very long time.  He felt confident and in control.  He felt that they just might get away with all of this after all.  His newfound confidence didn’t stop him from feeling his Guide’s exhaustion through their bond though.  Jim watched the younger man surreptitiously from the corner of his eye. While Blair continued to bounce along beside him energetically, his color looked a little off to the Sentinel.  Jim wondered if Blair were having difficulty maintaining his barriers, or whether he was dealing with some other problem.  Ellison glanced at his personal chronometer.  They’d been at this for over eight hours now.  That was long enough for an ordinary shift.  They could both do with a meal and some down time.  If Blair felt like continuing after that, then maybe they would think about the rest of the ship.

 

“Hey, Kid.” Ellison said as he slowed to a stop, just outside the doors to the engine room.  “How about a break?”

 

Blair glanced down at his own chronometer, and then let out a low whistle of amazement. “Eight hours?  Man!  Where did that time go?”

 

“Well we have been kinda busy, Chief.” Ellison snorted. “You about ready to head back to our rooms for some food and some down time?”

 

“Oooooh yeah.” Sandburg sighed.  “More than ready man.”

 

“You okay, Chief?” Ellison asked in concern.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Blair responded automatically.  “Just got a little headache is all.”

 

Ellison looked at his Guide sharply. “I thought that you were going to tell me if you were having problems with your barriers, Chief.”

 

Blair looked somewhat surprised at his Sentinel’s suddenly fierce expression.  “What?” he muttered vaguely, then quickly shook his head.  “Oh!  Aww no!  I’m not having problems with my barriers, man. They’re actually pretty easy to maintain with you right here.  The headache’s not from trying to keep them up.  It’s from the number of times today that I’ve let them drop.”

 

“Was that supposed to clarify the issue for me, Chief?” Ellison asked sarcastically, his expression remaining stern.

 

“Sorry.” Blair grimaced, then took a deep breath, obviously hunting for a way to explain.  “The reason that I have a headache is because I have deliberately dropped my shields on a number of occasions today, in order to keep our secret a secret.”

 

‘Bingo.’ Thought Jim.  “So you were using your empathy to make everyone look the other way while I was playing with reading the security grids with my senses.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t actually making people look away.” Blair said with a small blush.  “I was just projecting a sense that what we were doing was really uninteresting.”

 

“It worked, whatever it was that you were doing.” Ellison allowed himself a slight smile, and then ever so gently cuffed the younger man’s head. “But what the hell were you thinking, letting yourself develop a headache?  You should have told me sooner, kid.” the Sentinel admonished gently.

 

“It’s not bad, man.” Blair reassured him quickly.  “I could go on pretty easily if we needed to.  In fact, I think that as long as we’re here, we might as well check the engine room’s security grid, before we call it a night.”

 

Ellison looked at the door ahead of them.  They were already here, and it wouldn’t take a moment to check.  “Are you sure you’re alright?” Jim asked quietly.

 

Blair responded with his brightest smile.  “Yeah, man, I’m fine!  Let’s go do this, then we’ll head back and see what we can coax out of the replicators for dinner.  Easy!”

 

“Okay, kid.” Jim grinned, then walked purposefully toward the Engine room door, with Blair a half a step behind him.

 

As Jim had anticipated, this part of the ship was actually pretty deserted.  There were a few technicians playing around with control panels, but for the most part, the Engine room was ready to go.  The engineering crew had far too much to do in areas of the ship where the bugs in the system hadn’t been worked out to spend too much of their valuable time in an area that didn’t have any problems.  There were special teams for installing warp cores in starships.  Shipboard engineers didn’t have anything to do with the installation process.  Once they’d made their first warp jump, of course, things would be different.  After that event, this place would be teeming with life, as Captain Taggart and his people made sure that none of the little things that could go wrong after a first warp jump occurred.  For now though, all was quiet, and that was going to make Ellison’s task that much easier.

 

Sandburg smiled brightly and called out his little ‘Security Equipment’ spiel to the few technicians present, none of whom looked overly interested anyway.  Not that Ellison could blame them.  The engineering staff on this ship had been working continuous double shifts for weeks.  The poor slobs were undoubtedly exhausted.  Blair watched them out of the corner of his eye as he caught hold of his Sentinel’s uniform sleeve and dragged him to the area in the engine room that was furthest away from the technicians.

 

“Okay, man.” Blair said quietly.  “You know the drill.  Relax, and centre yourself… Cool?”  Ellison barely had time to nod before Blair’s almost inaudible voice was off again, directing Jim’s senses once more.  “Okay then.  I want you to see the dial for ‘touch’.  Turn it up carefully.  You’ve already registered your uniform, man, so just tune it out.  It’s not important.  Just keep going until you feel the pulse of the security grid.  You know what it feels like.  We’ve done this dozens of times today.  You know where it’s supposed to be set.  Can you feel it man?”

 

“Ye…es” Jim said slowly, a small frown line appearing between his eyebrows.

 

“What’s up, Jim?” Blair asked quietly.

 

“I don’t know.” Jim said slowly, giving himself a small shake.  “I mean, I can feel the security grid.  It’s turned on and it’s set at a high setting, so it’s monitoring everything that it should.  But there’s something else…  I… I’m not sure what it is.” Ellison looked around in confusion at the rest of the room.  “It’s like something keeps throwing my concentration.”

 

“Well, okay.” Blair said with a small frown.  “Something is obviously registering with your senses as being out of place or wrong.  We just have to figure out what it is that’s setting them off.”

 

“Okay, Chief, where do we start?” Ellison asked quietly.

 

“Not sight.  That would be too damned obvious.” Blair responded with a frown.  “It’d be something subtler, or you’d have pinned down what was bothering you right off.  Let’s try hearing, okay?”

 

“Sure, Chief.” Ellison responded easily.

 

“Cool.” Blair nodded in satisfaction.  “I want you to centre yourself again.  Now, just like we practiced in the armory, I want you to see the dial for hearing and I want you to turn it up, just a little, until you can hear my heartbeat clearly.  Okay?”

 

“Okay.” Ellison nodded.

 

“Right.  Now I want you to keep turning up the dial, but keep your focus in this room.  All of those conversations that are happening out there in the rest of the ship aren’t important, man.  Voices are a natural ‘puller’ for our attention, but you need to tune them out, because only what’s happening in this room is important, and man, nobody’s talk’n’ here.”

 

Ellison allowed his hearing to do as Blair was instructing it.  Gradually, he faded out the sound of conversations in nearby rooms and the sounds of the technicians working on the other side of the room that he was in.  One by one, he eliminated all of the common sounds that filled up silence, unheard by normal human ears.  Finally he was left with one sound that he could not identify.  A strange, sour hum that seemed to fill the engine room.  “Got it, Chief.” Ellison said quietly.

 

“Good.” Blair nodded.  “So what’s the problem?”

 

“I don’t know.” the security chief frowned.  “I can hear a noise that I can’t identify, but I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

 

“Yes, you can.” Blair replied confidently.  “Just focus on the sound, and let the sound tell your eyes where to go.”

 

“What?” Ellison looked at his young Guide blankly.

 

“Just do it Ellison.” Blair rolled his eyes impatiently.  Jim shrugged, then turned to attempt to follow his Guide’s instructions.

 

Now that he knew what he was listening for, it was actually pretty easy to focus on the sound that had been throwing him off.  He listened to the sound for a moment, then allowed the sound to draw his eyes.  To his immense surprise, Ellison found himself looking directly at the warp core.

 

“You gotta be kidding me!” he hissed under his breath as he half jogged over to the observation window for the core, a sick suspicion already forming as to what was making that sour noise.  Ellison was vaguely aware of Blair trotting along at his heels, asking him what the problem was, but for the time being, Ellison kept most of his focus on that sound and its possible implications.

 

The core’s observation window was constructed of an impossibly hard, clear alloy.  It was placed in such a way that the engineers could keep a half an eye on the ship’s ultimate power source; the Dilithium Crystals that powered the warp core reactor.  The crystals were still relatively cool at that point.  They wouldn’t get their first real work out until the ship made the jump to warp speed for the first time.  In spite of this, Jim still made sure that he grabbed a pair of safety goggles from the wall before hitting the button that would draw back the shield that usually covered the window.  Dimly, Jim heard both Blair’s strangled cry of protest and the technicians’ cries of surprise, but the Sentinel was too busy focusing his eyes into the overly bright centre of the core to respond to either.

 

For a moment, it was all far too bright.  Far too painful.  But then things seemed to shift and come into focus.  He could see…  he could see…

 

Darkness.

 

The sudden absence of light threw the Sentinel completely.  Jim suddenly found himself off balance, and would have fallen if not for the strong and steady support of Blair Sandburg’s arms.  “Easy, big guy.” The younger man was whispering.  “Just breath for me.”

 

Ellison did as his Guide instructed, and then looked down into the empath’s frightened and angry eyes.  “Thanks.” He muttered ruefully as he realized that he must have zoned and Blair must have shut the shield again to break his line of concentration.

 

“What the FUCK did you think you were just doing, Ellison?” Blair asked, his voice filled with quiet venom.  “Christ, man!  You just looked straight into the godammed warp core!  Even with protective goggles you didn’t know what effect that was going to have on your eyes, you idiot!  Man, I have got no idea how we’re going to explain that little display to those tech’s.”  Blair trailed off with an anxious glance over his shoulder at the two technicians that were standing together on the far side of the room, looking at them as though they were both Klingon, or something equally repulsive.

 

“The technicians have got far bigger problems than us.” Jim growled softly, then looked directly at the two men and raised his voice.  “One of you two had better go get Captain Taggart.  Tell him he needs to get his ass down here on the double.”

 

The two men looked at each other nervously.  “Ummm, why don’t you just call him over the ship’s intercom?” asked the older of the two.

 

“Because I don’t want to start a damned panic, that’s why.” Ellison growled.  “Go get your boss, and quietly, quietly, tell him that the Dilithium Crystals are cracked.  He needs to get down here and perform some tests that will confirm it, so we can start proceedings to get them off this ship safely.”

 

“That’s impossible.” Blair blurted, his face going as pale as the technicians’ at his Sentinel’s words.  “They were just installed.  Any defects would have been picked up at the installation phase.”

 

“Should have been,” Ellison agreed tightly, “but wasn’t.”  Ellison glanced across at the technicians again.  “Move!” he barked.  “And remember what I said about keeping it quiet.  Until those things can be removed, they’re dangerous.”  The younger of the two men nodded convulsively, then bolted for the door.  Ellison sighed and then turned back to his Guide.

 

“Sorry, Kid.” he said wearily.  “Looks like dinner is going to have to wait.”

 

“That’s cool, man.” Blair sighed resignedly.  “Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite.”

 


 

Simon Banks was not a happy man.  And one glance around at the ship’s assembled senior officers was enough to tell him that he wasn’t alone in that. 

 

It had been a long night.  When he’d first received word from Joel Taggart that there was a problem with the ship’s warp core, Simon had reacted with disbelief.  It was unheard of for there to be a problem like this before a ship had even made it’s first warp jump.  However, after a night of overseeing the extremely difficult and delicate task of safely removing the damaged Dilithium Crystals and jump starting the bureaucratic mess that was Starfleet Command so that the crystals could be safely removed from the ship and disposed of, disbelief had worn off.  All Banks was left with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.  This should not have happened.  There was no way that this should have happened.  If Sandburg and Ellison had not been quite so thorough in their security sweep of the ship, it never would have been picked up.  Ships often experienced glitches in power supplies on their maiden warp jump.  No one would have thought to check the newly installed crystals, as that would have been done at installation.  The damaged crystals would have become unstable the moment the warp core kicked up to full power.

 

One hundred and fifty eight souls would have been lost before anyone could do anything. 

 

The thousand and one small mishaps and mistakes that had been making Simon Banks and his crews' lives hell for the past few weeks could have conceivably happened to any ship getting ready for it’s maiden voyage.  The staffing disaster that their ever-so-vigilant security chief had unearthed may have been genuine coincidence.  But cracked Dilithium Crystals in a brand new drive crossed the line into sabotage, which was why his senior staff were presently assembled in the conference room, waiting for a video conference with the admiralty.  To paraphrase the immortal bard, something was most definitely ‘rotten’ in the state of Denmark, and it was time to pull in the big guns to find out where the source of the offending ‘odor’ lay.

 

Simon’s thoughts were interrupted by a quiet voice at his elbow.

 

“Sir, I’m receiving a signal from San Francisco that they’re ready to begin transmitting.” The ship’s Chief Communications Officer said quietly, his formal English accent the perfect accompaniment to the ice-cool air of efficiency the young man exuded.  “I’ve already ensured that the communications satellite we’re using is secure.  We’re ready whenever you give the word.”

 

Banks nodded at the younger man.  “Switch us through, Mr. Curtis.” Banks ordered.

 

“Yes, Sir.” The Englishman responded formally, and suddenly the large vid screen on the wall of the conference room blazed to life.

 

The scene that the monitor displayed was almost mind-numbing in its blandness.  Starfleet conference rooms were designed to be as inoffensive as possible to as many species as possible, and as a result, they had achieved a sterility that a surgeon would be impressed with.  The three people, two men and a woman, that sat facing the screen looked similarly unimpressive and uninteresting.  It was only the pips that adorned the collars of each of their uniforms that gave away the fact that appearances were, in their cases, deceiving. 

 

Banks recognized each of them on sight, of course.  It would have been impossible for anyone that had risen to the rank that he had attained, not to know them.

 

The woman was small, and possessed a body shape that was neither plump nor thin, but somewhere between the two.  Her age could have been anything from fifty-five to seventy.  Her skin was dark and her short hair was graying.  She was, in short, so nondescript as to be almost invisible.  The kind of person that you didn’t even register in a crowd.  That was, unless you looked at her eyes.  The woman’s eyes were hard and dark, like obsidian, and shone with the force of her intelligence.  Admiral Joella Woods had not risen to the position of head of Starfleet Intelligence by merely being a politician.  She was smart and cunning and lethal, and age had done nothing to mellow her.

 

The two men that flanked her were her ‘Lieutenants’, so to speak.  To her left sat the solidly built and stern-looking Admiral Harry Malone.  The Englishman always looked like he had been sucking on lemons, and exuded a kind of stiff formality that made Banks wonder if he had sat on something sharp, and was just trying not to let his discomfort show.  To Admiral Woods’ right sat the younger and infinitely more oily Admiral Norman Oliver.  The American had achieved his rank at an unusually early age, and always seemed to exude a sense of smug, self-satisfaction that put Banks’ teeth on edge.

 

Together, the three people that were presently facing his crew from the monitor took up the three highest positions in Starfleet Intelligence.  It was nice to know that they were taking his report seriously, at least, Banks mused.  Now, if they could just tell him who was responsible for the mess that his officers had just spent all night dealing with, he’d be a happy man.

 

“Captain Banks,” Admiral Woods began without preamble, “we were most distressed to receive your report.”

 

“I was most distressed with the circumstances that necessitated it, Admiral.” Banks responded dryly.

 

Woods allowed a small smile to touch her face at that, and she inclined her head ever so slightly to acknowledge the truth of his words.  “Understandable, Captain,” she responded quietly. 

 

“Admiral, as you’ve undoubtedly read in my report, this was just the latest, and admittedly, most severe of the incidences that have plagued this ship.  Up until now, each of the incidences has been written off as either coincidence or bad luck.  With this latest incident, though, I can no longer allow myself the luxury of looking at each of the past incidences separately.  And I have to say, viewed as a whole, all those ‘little’ incidences add up to make a worrying picture, Sir.”

 

“I agree.” Woods acknowledged.  “I must ask though, how did you uncover the fault in the Warp drive?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy that the problem was picked up.  I’m merely curious as to how it was uncovered in the first place, and your report is a little vague in that area.”

 

Banks glanced across at his silent and stern looking Security Chief, and the long-haired young man that sat so closely beside him.  Ellison merely returned his look neutrally, but Sandburg evidently recognized the silent plea for help for what it was.  The night had been hectic, and the three of them had not really had a chance to compare notes yet to come up with a good cover story.  Sandburg caught the look on his Captain’s face, and quickly leaned forward to respond to the question.

 

“I can help you there, Admiral,” the young man said with a smooth assurance that showed no hint of uncertainty or avoidance. “Captain Ellison and I were testing a some new monitoring equipment which had been designed to use energy waves to monitor the performance of the ship’s security grid.  We were checking the grid in the engine room and the device began registering some unusual readings.  Because of that, we checked everything in the area that might have had an effect on the readings we were receiving, and as a result, located the flawed crystals.”

 

“Interesting.” Admiral Woods gave the young scientist a measuring look.  “That device sounds fascinating.  I’d like to take a look at it.  We might be able to put such a device to use in other ways.”

 

“Undoubtedly.” Sandburg replied with a nod, “I’d be happy to show it to you, Admiral, but Commander Ellison and I are still working on the prototype.  We’ve only just begun to test it.  We’d like to work a few of the bugs out before we present it to anyone.”

 

“Very well, Dr Sandburg,” Woods nodded her acceptance, “but I’d still like to see it when you’re finished.  It sounds promising.”

 

“We think so.” Sandburg responded with a bland dryness that almost made Banks swallow his tongue.  The Captain glanced across at his science head again, and was surprised by the openness of his face.  It was more than a little disconcerting to realize that this young man had been up assisting Taggart all night, and yet still had the presence of mind and aplomb to lie to the heads of Starfleet Intelligence with such cool indifference that Banks was tempted to believe him, and he already knew what the truth was. 

 

Banks was suddenly hit with the knowledge that he might have to reassess the young scientist after this meeting was over.  Simon was so intent in his study of the empath, that it took a moment for him to realize that Admiral Woods was talking again.

 

“…most irritating set of circumstances.  Unfortunately, the first, and most concrete thing that we can tell you is that the technician responsible for the installation of your ship’s Dilithium Crystals has disappeared.  I’ve had my own people looking into it, and it seems that Lieutenant Commander Djangara boarded a lunar shuttle less than twenty-four hours after he had completed the installation aboard the Raptor.  He was no longer onboard when the shuttle docked on the moon.  There was evidence that the man had been transported off the shuttle via transporter.  The beam was not detected immediately, because there is generally no need for excessive security on board a regular shuttle service.  Space Control on the lunar surface and at star dock list seventeen ships in the area at that time with transporter capacity.  Only four of those ships were Starfleet.  It’s a pain in the ass, but Earth space is always busy.  So far, all requests for information on the whereabouts of Lieutenant Commander Djangara have come back negative.  We’ll find him, but it’s going to take some time, and it appears that time is something we don’t have.”  Woods’ face became suddenly very hard.  “By the way, Captain.  You have the apologies of the Intelligence sector.  This situation should never have occurred.  Starfleet prides itself on its intelligence network, but this situation has caught us by surprise.  I know that it would have been cold comfort to the families left behind if the Raptor had tried to jump to warp speed with those Dilithium Crystals, but I am personally going to look into how this situation was allowed to occur.”  Admiral Woods’ eyes never left the monitor, but the slight darkening of the face of Admiral Oliver was enough to let Banks know who Woods held to be responsible for the near-disaster.

 

“Thank you, Admiral,” Banks inclined his head diplomatically, “however, I’m sure that you can appreciate my position when I say that I’m less concerned about how it happened, than I am about ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.  Have you been able to ascertain the reason that the Raptor is being targeted?”

 

“Yes, Captain, we have.” Oliver cut in smoothly.  “It appears that there is a faction within Starfleet itself that isn’t overly happy with our having any type of treaty with the Romulans.  We knew the faction existed, but that wasn’t any surprise.  Any time the Federation signs a treaty with one of it’s traditional enemies, we hear the same rumblings of discontent.  We hadn’t really paid them much attention, up until we were informed of the problem with your warp drive, because traditionally, such factions have always been all talk, no action.  The digging my people have done since you first contacted us yesterday has uncovered a far more organized movement that we had anticipated.”

 

Banks looked at Oliver for a long moment, before snorting and shaking his head.  “Okay.  I can buy the fact that there are a lot of people not happy with us signing a treaty with the Romulans.  God knows I’ve heard the arguments against it, and I can certainly see where the people involved are coming from.  Every time we’ve gotten involved with them, we’ve ended up getting burnt.”  Banks sat back in his chair at this and folded his arms, allowing his body language to reflect his skepticism.  “I’m having a hard time believing that those people are responsible for the difficulties aboard the Raptor though.  Any faction that’s against a treaty with the Romulans, feels that way because they dislike the Romulans.  I doubt that they’d express that dislike by murdering a ship full of Starfleet personnel.”

 

Oliver cocked an eyebrow at him, and his whole attitude became even more condescending than usual.  “Captain Banks, one of the key elements of the treaty we’ve signed with the Romulans is that the Federation will be able to hold up its end of patrolling and policing the Neutral Zone.  If the Raptor had been destroyed before it could even reach the Zone, the treaty would have fallen apart.  I think that it’s pretty naive of you to think that someone determined to ensure that we have nothing to do with the Romulan Empire, wouldn’t sacrifice one hundred and fifty odd people to that end.  There are some who’d believe it to be a cheap price to pay.  One hundred and fifty people now, or one hundred and fifty thousand people, if the Romulans were to follow their usual pattern and turn on their allies when the allies least expects it, later.” Oliver paused, and his tone took on the infinitely reasonable tone of an adult explaining some matter to a child.  “You can’t attach normal concepts of morality to a fanatic, Captain.”

 

Banks sat back in his chair and clenched his jaw shut against the multitude of come-backs that were dying to escape.  Unfortunately, the majority of replies that were leaping to mind involved the words “Fuck off”, and while voicing those words would undoubtedly be satisfying, it wouldn’t be very professional of him, and he had standards that needed to be maintained in front of his crew.  Seeing as there were no civilized responses that he could make to Oliver’s little dialogue, he opted for saying nothing at all.

 

That didn’t stop him from taking an unholy pleasure at imagining his fist slamming repeatedly into the bastard’s face though.  Banks really disliked that asshole.

 

“I’m sorry, Admiral, but I don’t buy it.” Ellison’s voice suddenly sounded from across the table.  Banks looked at him, and wasn’t even slightly surprised that the man’s expression could have been carved from granite.  There was just something about formal meetings like this that always seemed to bring out the fabled ‘Iceman’ in his personality.  “Starfleet Intelligence monitors even the smallest hint of trouble from both outside and inside the Federation.  I’m finding it difficult to believe that a plot to sabotage and destroy a Starship, particularly one that’s central to a very delicate treaty, would have been able to escape notice entirely.  Perhaps Intelligence needs to be looking in its own back yard for conspirators.”

 

Banks looked at his Security Chief sharply at that comment.  The man’s face remained completely neutral, but there was no mistaking what Ellison was saying.  Banks bit back a curse.  He agreed with what Ellison said entirely, but flat out accusing the Intelligence sector of collusion in an incident that could have so easily lead to the destruction of a starship and the deaths of its crew was really not the way to ensure their future assistance.  Banks had been going to bring up the matter with Admiral Woods privately, after the formal meeting was over.  He’d forgotten to take Ellison’s complete lack of tact and his personal history with Intelligence into account when he’d insisted that his senior staff sit in on the meeting.  Belatedly, he recalled a rumor that had been circulating at the time of Ellison’s reappearance that the Commander had been very vocal in his condemnation of certain parties within Intelligence Command.  His friend hadn’t said anything to him directly, though, so he’d dismissed the rumors from his mind.  Looking at Ellison’s carefully neutral expression now though, Banks had a nasty feeling his lack of attention to that rumor was about to bite him on the butt.

 

Oliver’s condescending expression didn’t falter even slightly at Ellison’s blunt accusation.  His eyes merely flicked toward the Commander, and a humorless smile touched the Admiral’s face.  “That’s an interesting view-point coming from you, Commander.  Considering that there was so much talk about sabotage surrounding your last mission as well, I think maybe you’re protesting too much.  I hope that your Captain feels comfortable knowing the last mission his security chief commanded resulted in the deaths of everyone involved in the mission.  Except yourself, of course.  Seems to me, with your past history, your Captain might want to look for conspirators a little closer to home.”

 

Banks was watching as the carved granite mask his Security Chief had assumed before walking into this meeting cracked and crumbled away.  He was simply too far away from the man to do anything to stop it.  The instant that cool professionalism crumbled to reveal the man’s suppressed fury and pain, Banks knew that Ellison was not going to be able to stop himself from rising to Oliver’s bait, and that the Commander was going to say things that were going to get him into trouble.  Not a good move for someone that was supposed to be keeping a relatively low profile.  Banks leaned forward toward his friend urgently, and he was aware of Sandburg’s frantic lunge to catch hold of the Sentinel, but they were both a fraction of a second too late.  Ellison was on his feet before anyone could do anything.

 

Don’t you try to pin that on me, you murdering son-of-a-bitch!  That mission was undertaken based on the intel you provided us with, and those bastards were waiting for us!  You fucked us over, you traitorous bastard, and we BOTH know it…”

 

Ellison!” Banks roared at the top of his lungs, and succeeded in drawing his Security Chief’s agonized eyes toward him, just as Sandburg leapt out of his seat and almost plastered himself to the Sentinel’s side.  The young scientist took a death-grip on the taller man’s uniform and proceeded to speak to Ellison in a voice so quiet that Banks doubted that even the people sitting directly next the pair could hear what he was saying.  The look on the young man’s face was enough to betray the intensity behind his feelings, though, and whatever it was that the empath said seemed to have the desired effect.  The rage and pain washed out of the taller man’s face, and when Ellison turned his eyes to the younger man a split second later, the mask was almost completely back in place.  Only the lingering grief in the big man’s eyes betrayed how much damage Oliver’s shot had done him. 

 

Banks drew a quick breath and turned back to the monitor, determined to do as much damage control as he could.  Oliver may have provoked that outburst, but losing control like that, particularly at a superior officer, was most definitely frowned upon.  It was conceivable that an outburst like that could get Ellison court-marshaled, or demoted and reassigned.  Banks was determined not to let that happen to his friend.  Ellison had been through enough lately, and the man had effectively saved the lives of everyone on the ship by locating those damaged crystals.  Banks’ sense of fair play and personal loyalty wasn’t going to let Ellison go down here without a fight.

 

To his surprise, the expressions of the three Admirals were reflecting irritation and confusion, rather than the outrage that he’d been expecting.  Banks was even more surprised when Admiral Woods leaned forward slightly and looked directly at him.  Her lips moved, but no sound emerged.  Banks frowned, and then glanced quickly over at the Communications Officer standing by the computer terminal at the back of the room.

 

Lieutenant Commander Sam Curtis was looking at the monitor with the blandest expression imaginable.  When he noticed his Captain’s scrutiny, he turned and glanced over at the computer terminal with an almost studied casualness.  “Oh.” He said in an informal tone that Banks had never heard from him before.  Gone was the ‘cut glass’ accent, and in its place was an accent laced with a cockney drawl.  “We appear to have lost audio.  Wonder ‘ow that happened.” The man was looking at the terminal with his arms folded across his chest, and was making no move to correct the problem.

 

Banks blinked as the communications officer turned his grey-green eyes toward him once again.  The man’s expression remained bland, but the Captain recognized the truth instantly and was surprised by the small burst of pride he felt at it.  Curtis had realized that Ellison was in trouble and had taken steps to protect him.  The Raptor’s crew may have only just formed, but they were already showing signs of becoming the well-oiled machine that one usually only witnessed in crew’s that were very well established.  The adversity that they had all faced in trying to get the ship up and running on an impossible timeline may have made life difficult, but the pressure was doing wonders for facilitating team-building.  Banks was impressed with the speed in which Curtis had responded to the situation.  He resolved to think of a way of congratulating him on it later, without giving the impression that he approved of insubordination.  It might be a bit tricky, but Banks felt that he was up to the challenge.

 

“Perhaps the communications satellite had difficulties, Mr. Curtis.” Banks responded to his Communications Officer with a blandness to match the Englishman’s.  “See if you can correct the problem.”

 

“Aye, sir.”  Curtis turned back to the terminal, but then paused.  His grey-green eyes turned back toward Ellison suddenly, and his expression became suddenly grim.  “Hey, Ellison.” The young man said quietly.  “Don’t let the tosser get to you.  He’s not worth it.”  For a moment, Ellison and the Englishman held eye contact, and some silent communication seemed to pass between them, before Ellison suddenly nodded, and allowed Sandburg to urge him back into his seat.  For a second, the understanding that had passed between the two men confused Banks, but then a flash of insight revealed the situation to him.

 

When he’d selected Curtis for the Communications Officer position, he’d been amazed that he’d been able to get an officer that had such an impressive list of qualifications with communications equipment, as well as both an exceptionally high security clearance and a fluent grasp of so many of the languages spoken in the Neutral Zone.  Right at that moment though, Banks was seeing that list of qualifications in a new light. 

 

Curtis was a spy.  Ex-spy.  Whatever.

 

Banks watched the man repair whatever he’d done to make audio go out on the satellite link, and wondered exactly how many of his staff had come from Intelligence.  Probably more than he’d be happy with, he acknowledged to himself, while squashing the unhappy sigh that wanted to escape.  He waited until the Englishman gave him a small nod to indicate that he was ready, before turning back to the monitor.

 

“My apologies, Admirals,” Banks said smoothly, “but we appear to have had a glitch with the communications satellite for a moment.  Now that we’re back on line, I’d like to add my protest to Commander Ellison’s over Admiral Oliver’s comments.  If Ellison had been involved in a previous incident, it would have been investigated thoroughly.  The fact that he’s sitting here indicates that he was found innocent of any wrong doing.”  Banks paused, then looked coolly at Oliver, who was glaring at Banks suspiciously.  Evidently they had all seen Ellison jump to his feet in fury, but with no audio to back it up, he was unable to gainsay Banks’ assertion that Ellison had merely been protesting at an inappropriate comment.  ‘It must be driving him up the wall that he was able to goad Ellison into an outburst, but not be able to use it against him.’  Simon thought smugly, then decided that while he was at it and enjoying himself, he might as well sink the boot into Oliver and give the bastard a taste of his own medicine.  “And in regards to the comment you made about my level of trust in my Security Chief, I’d like to assure you all that I have absolute confidence in Commander Ellison’s ability to do his job, and do it well.  He, after all, was able to pick up both the problems in staffing, and the problems with the warp drive.  Something that your people missed.  I’d say that Commander Ellison was doing his job admirably.  Pity that the same can’t be said for some others.”  Banks held Oliver’s eyes as he finished his dialogue, letting the man know with that look exactly who it was that he lacked confidence in.  

 

The Captain had a very hard time not smiling when Oliver’s eyes darkened in response to his comment.  He knew that antagonizing the man wasn’t really very smart, but damn it felt good!

 

“I can understand Commander Ellison’s – distress -- at Admiral Oliver’s comments.  We are all distressed by the possibility of the involvement of some element of Intelligence in this matter.” Woods said coolly, making Banks want to laugh.  Just like the Admiralty to acknowledge a stuff-up without either apologizing or admitting responsibility for said stuff-up.  Dealing with them was always a predictable experience.  Woods passed them a look then that seemed to encompass the whole room.  “I assure you that we are taking the possibility of the involvement of Intelligence officers extremely seriously.  I’m looking into it personally.”

 

Banks fought back the urge to ask if that was supposed to make him feel better.  “In the mean-time, Admiral, I need to know what’s going to be done to ensure that nothing like this happens again.”  Banks sighed then, and allowed some of his exhaustion to show through.  “We all know that the timeline we’ve been working on with this ship was insane to begin with.  With the personnel we’ve had to reject since that disaster with staffing, and the time we’ve lost simply removing the damaged Dilithium Crystals, I don’t really know how we’re going to be able to get this ship ready by the deadline we’ve been given as it is.  There’d be no hope if anything else went wrong.”

 

“Starfleet Command are aware of your situation, Captain Banks.” Admiral Malone, silent until now, finally spoke up.  “Steps are being taken to get your crew numbers up to their correct allocation as quickly as possible.” The older man paused then, and something like a smile touched his usually grim face.  “It would appear that you have fallen into the favor of some deity or other, Captain Banks.  Since word of your… difficulties… has gotten out, there has been a push from those factions that want the treaty with the Romulans to go ahead, to allocate you whatever resources you need to be ready on schedule.  It appears that the Pro-Romulan Treaty faction is holding the sway of power, right at this moment, because from what my people have been reporting to me, there is an excellent chance that the President of the Federation will sign off on the proposed reallocation of funds when it’s formally presented to him tonight.” The faintly ironic twist of the old man’s lips became more pronounced then, and gave away his amusement at the situation.  “So, keep your chin up, Captain.  You may yet pull off the impossible task that you were set.”

 

Banks didn’t know whether he should be relieved of insulted by the older man’s words, so decided that the best course of action was to simply ignore them.

 

“In addition to the steps being taken to ensure that you are fully staffed as quickly as possible, I’ve instructed Admiral Malone to put together a unit of agents with the specific task of ensuring the safety of the Raptor and the Abydos, which will be patrolling the Klingon Neutral Zone.”  Woods added.  “I can assure you, Captain, that there will be no further incidents of sabotage while you are in space dock.”

 

Once again, Banks wondered if he was supposed to express relief at the woman’s assurances.  They hadn’t done a particularly brilliant job of protecting the ship, even within the supposedly secure region of Earth Space.  Still, this conversation hadn’t been without merit.  He’d learned that Starfleet were going to do something about his staffing situation at least.  The rest of it he’d believe when he saw it.  He decided to end the conversation with something concrete.  “When can we expect our new staff to arrive?”  He asked.

 

“They should begin arriving before the end of the next crew cycle.” Woods replied.  “Admiral Malone will be looking over their records before we send them to you, so there won’t be any further questions of suitability.”

 

“Thank you, Admiral Woods.”  Banks then turned his eyes to the man that seemed to have been placed in charge of their safety, “Admiral Malone.”  The conversation had gone the way of most conversations with the Admiralty.  Somehow they’d managed to get through an entire conversation on a subject without sharing anything truly relevant, or giving anything away that they didn’t feel that the ‘grunts’ needed to know about.  It was irritating as hell, but Banks had had a certain amount of experience at this, and he knew enough not to allow himself to be disheartened by it.  “I trust that we’ll hear from you again, if any further information comes to light?” he asked, having to work hard to keep the irony out of his voice.

 

“Of course, Captain.” Oliver said pointedly, as though to remind Banks that he was still there.  ‘Like I’m going to forget,’ Banks thought darkly, allowing the man only the briefest nods of acknowledgement.  He didn’t like the man, and he most certainly didn’t like the man’s attitude toward his Security Chief.  Now that he knew that it was Malone that would be taking responsibility for them, he saw no need to be more than passably civil to the man.  He might regret that one-day, but he had to survive his current assignment to actually reach one day.  Banks glanced across the table at his old friend, and noted the tightly suppressed pain that his rigid body language betrayed.  Banks decided that he’d take his chances, and kept his attention tightly focused on Woods and Malone.

 

“Thank you again.” He said politely.

 

Woods inclined her head slightly, and Malone almost looked amused at Banks’ pointed snub at Oliver.  “And again, Captain, you have both our apologies on the situation and our assurances that it will not happen again.” Woods said.  Banks nodded, and the transmission was cut.

 

For a long moment there was silence in the wake of the vid-screen blanking out.  Banks looked around at his senior staff, and raised his eyebrows in quiet irony.  “Thoughts, people?” he asked, almost sarcastically.

 

“You don’t want to hear my thoughts on that, Simon.” Dr Sandburg almost hissed, his face suddenly savage.  Ellison glanced at the young man, who was damn-near vibrating in place with anger, and lay a gentling hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  Sandburg looked up at his Sentinel, and something wordless passed between the two men.  Before Banks could say anything though, Taggart spoke up from further down the conference table. 

 

“It’s alright Blair.” The older man said gently, “Oliver is the worst sort of officer.  No one here was listening to anything he said.” The understanding he saw in Taggart’s face as he looked at the science officer and security chief surprised the Captain.  He knew that Sandburg and Taggart had met only briefly before last night, and the engineering officer hadn’t actually laid eyes on Ellison until he’d turned up in the engine room in response to the security chief’s summons.  Still, Banks knew only too well that Sandburg had insisted on staying and assisting Taggart in the delicate process of removing the damaged crystals, and while Sandburg was in any kind of danger, there was no way that anyone was going to be able to make Ellison go anywhere.  Simon supposed that a whole night spent in close quarters, and only one false move away from an unpleasant and lingering death of radiation poisoning was enough to build a friendship.

 

 Dr Baccus, Banks noted, merely sat back in her chair and eyed the security chief darkly.

 

“Commander Taggart is right about Oliver.” Curtis put in quietly.  “I’ll admit that I’m pleased that Malone’s been put in charge of looking out for us, and not Oliver.  Malone’s a stiff-necked old bastard, but I’d lay money on him being honest.  I believe that he’ll do his best for us.”

 

“Whether he’ll do his best for us or not, I think I’m going to take my own steps to ensure our safety.” Ellison said quietly, his voice vaguely husky. It was the first words that he had uttered since his outburst, and Banks was worried to note that the man didn’t take his eyes from the table at any point as he spoke.  Sandburg evidently noticed this as well, because his eyes became anguished as he looked at the Sentinel.

 

“I agree.” Banks said softly.  “I think that we’d be wise to step up our own security measures as well.”

 

“Do you think that Starfleet will actually come through with those extra funds Malone mentioned?” Taggart asked wearily.

 

Banks simply snorted.  “Who knows?” He growled.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

Taggart nodded, and Banks was forcibly reminded that Taggart had been working double shifts for weeks now, and yesterday’s all-nighter had been the icing on a very bad cake.  The man looked terrible.  A quick glance around the table told him that he wasn’t the only one.  Sandburg and Ellison had been coming off a long shift when they’d discovered the problem with the Dilithium crystals, and they had been up assisting Taggart since then.  Even Baccus, pain-in-the-ass that she was, had been up all night, trying to get the ship’s medical center up to speed, and then waiting on standby, just in case anything had gone wrong.  His people were exhausted.  It was time to cut them some slack.

 

“In any case, we can’t do anything about it right now.” Banks said forcefully.  “For the moment, you people have done enough.  Contact your 2IC’s and then get yourselves back to your quarters.  You all did good last night, people.  Now take a break.  God knows when you’ll get another one.”

 

Ellison looked up sharply at that, and Banks could see the argument in his eyes.  The Captain thought that he was going to have a fight on his hands, but before Ellison could say anything, Sandburg touched the security chief’s arm again, and said something that Banks couldn’t hear.  Whatever it was though, it had the desired effect on Ellison, because the fight drained out of the man as though someone had pulled a plug on him. Ellison glanced at his Captain, and nodded wearily, and Simon found himself vaguely troubled by the lingering darkness that he saw in his friend’s eyes.

 

“I imagine that that goes for you too, Sir.” A quiet voice suddenly spoke up, causing Banks to look around in surprise.  Commander Connor had been so quiet since the meeting began, that he’d almost forgotten that she was back there, sitting on the far side of Taggart.

 

“I wish.” Banks gave the young woman a wry smile.  “I’m afraid that someone has to ensure that we get the new crew members that we were just promised.”

 

“I can do that, Sir.” Connor shrugged.  “You look exhausted.”

 

Banks looked at the woman sternly.  “I seem to recall you working all night to ensure that all of the non-essential personnel were safely evacuated, Commander.”

 

“Granted.” The woman agreed smoothly, “But unlike everyone else here, I was only just coming on shift when the shit hit the fan, so to speak.” Connor gave a small smile.  “If you cast your mind back, I had been about to relieve you when we got the ‘heads up’ from Commander Taggart.  The rest of you were just finishing a shift, and in your case, and Commander Taggart’s case, it was a double shift.  I’m good for the time being sir.” The woman then paused, and ran a critical eye over him.  “You, however, look like death warmed up.”

 

“Thank you for the critique, Commander.” Banks said sarcastically, but admitted to himself that she did look in decidedly better shape than the rest of them sitting at the table.

 

“Besides,” Connor shrugged, “I might be able to do something about speeding up the acquisition of our new crew.  I might be able to pull in a few favors, since intelligence has been put in charge of the screening process, and I came from that department.”

 

Banks wondered snidely if there was anyone on the ship who hadn’t come from intelligence, but he was forced to acknowledge that he was damned tired himself, and the woman’s performance during last night’s fiasco had impressed him.  He now understood why so many people he’d spoken to before offering her the job had had such strong opinions about the woman.  He’d briefly had the opportunity to watch her organizing the evacuation effort, and her total lack of concern for the ranks of the people she was ordering around had amused and impressed him.  Her no nonsense manner and sharp tongue had left more than one person spluttering indignantly.  Megan Connor, it seemed, did not suffer fools gladly, and her lack of patience with those that had not responded to her directions quickly enough had been spectacular.  His First Officer was one of those people that were either liked or hated.  The woman’s personality allowed for no middle ground.  Banks was rapidly coming to the conclusion that that was all right thought.

 

He didn’t like fools either.

 

“All right, Commander Connor.” Simon snorted in defeat.  “You have the con.  I want to hear about any difficulties immediately though.  Getting our new crew members is too important for us to waste time with the usual crap that has to be dealt with in these situations.”

 

“Don’t worry, Sir.” Connor raised an eyebrow sardonically.  “If anyone gets officious on me, I can guarantee that you’ll hear about it.” The woman grinned darkly, “Chances are, I won’t even have call you on the intercom.”

 

Having heard the woman rip into some idiot at space dock the night before, Banks was forced to acknowledge the truth of that statement with a small chuckle.  Connor’s voice certainly could take on a piercing quality when she was unhappy about something.  Banks wouldn’t have minded betting that they’d heard her tearing strips off her poor victim last night all the way over in engineering.

 

“Alright, people.  That’s it.” Banks said to his assembled command crew.  “I don’t want to see any of your ugly faces for at least twelve hours.  Dismissed.”

 

Banks watched his staff drag themselves wearily to their feet, and begin to disappear out into the hall.  The Captain remained seated, and watched silently as Ellison approached Curtis.  The two men spoke quietly for a moment, and then almost solemnly shook hands.  Then Ellison turned and walked back to where his Guide was waiting for him. 

 

Simon drew himself to his feet as the pair disappeared out the door, and then made his way out into the hallway himself.  He paused outside the conference room door and watched as Ellison and Sandburg disappeared around a corner.  The Captain acknowledged to himself that he didn’t like the way his security chief had looked, back in the conference room.  Unfortunately, at this point there wasn’t much he could do for the man.  The only thing that was really open to him right now was to give Ellison some space, and hope that Sandburg could do something to help him.

 

For a long moment, Banks stood and looked thoughtfully at the spot where he’d seen the pair disappear, and then turned away to head back to his own quarters and his own well-earned rest.

 


 

The trip back to their quarters was made in total silence.  Apparently, the Sentinel didn’t feel like talking, and for the moment, that was just fine with Blair Sandburg.  He needed some time himself to process.

 

They had both been exhausted when the Captain had informed them that their presence would be required for a conference with Starfleet Intelligence on how last night’s disaster had come about.  Blair had been apprehensive about that damned conference before Simon had even finished telling them that they needed to be there for it.  It hadn’t been either his overwhelming tiredness, or the pounding headache that was making clear thinking a near impossibility that had brought about his desire to avoid the meeting though.  It had been the sudden wave of intense, dark emotions that had flowed to him through the bond in the instant that Banks told them that Intelligence was being called in that had worried him.

 

Blair had tried to talk to his Sentinel about it as soon as Simon was gone, but Ellison had fobbed him off with a particularly lame excuse about just being too tired to worry about dealing with the idiots that ran Intelligence right now.  Blair knew that Jim was lying to him.  The maelstrom of pain and hate and grief that had washed over him when Ellison had heard that they were going to be talking to the heads of Intelligence had absolutely nothing to do with being tired.  The young Guide had wanted to get to the bottom of that rather extreme over-reaction immediately, and to hell with both his own headache and the meeting.  Jim, however, had fixed his stone-cold mask firmly in place and had stubbornly reminded his partner that they were both Starfleet Officers, and if their Captain told them that they were going to a meeting, then they were damned-well going to be at that meeting, come hell or high water.  The determination that flowed to Blair through the bond was enough to tell the young empath that there would be no budging the Sentinel on the matter, so he had reluctantly followed his partner to the conference room.  Blair hadn’t been even slightly happy about it, but had decided that he could get to the bottom of it all as soon as the meeting was finished. 

 

Of course, with the way that meeting had gone, Blair was now cursing himself for not following his instincts and insisting that the meeting could be held just as easily without them.

 

Blair watched his Sentinel intensely from his position, one pace back and to the right of him, as they both walked silently toward their quarters.  The broad, strong back was almost ramrod straight, and something about the set of those shoulders and the unnatural stiffness of his gait betrayed both deep pain and extreme exhaustion.  Ellison had attempted to with hold emotions from the bond, again, but in spite of his best efforts, the empath could feel the raw emotional wounds that had been torn open.  Blair gnawed on his lip nervously.  The Guide in him wanted to tackle the task of wrestling Ellison’s secrets from him immediately.  He knew instinctively that the task would not be an easy one, and that Ellison would fight him on it, but the wounds the man carried on his soul had been left to fester for far too long as it was.  They had to be fairly septic to have inspired the pain that he had felt through the bond back in the conference room.  The only cure for such damage was to lay the wound bare and cleanse it, then tend to it until it healed.  He had a duty to his friend to do this for him, even though the process was going to be painful.

 

Unfortunately, the friend in Blair whispered that James Ellison had been though enough in the last twenty-four hours.  The man had trusted Blair enough to attempt to use his enhanced senses in some very public settings.  He had respected Blair enough not to push the issue when the scientist had insisted that he was more than capable of assisting Taggart in removing the damaged crystals, in spite of the headache he’d already had from pushing his empathy too far for one day.  Most importantly though, he had loved Blair enough to risk sharing his fate if things had gone wrong in the delicate and dangerous process of removing the crystals.  Neither he nor Taggart had ever attempted such a procedure before, although Taggart had spent time as a bomb technician, and had laughingly suggested that it really wasn’t that much different to dismantling a bomb.  Still,  Dilithium was dangerous stuff at the best of times, and when it was damaged, it became immensely unstable.  If the worst had happened, not even radiation suits would have been enough to protect them from the burst of radiation that would have resulted from the Crystals disintegrating.  With the nearest qualified technician several days away, he and Taggart had decided that they didn’t want to risk leaving it. 

 

Blair had told Jim that there was no reason for him to stay.  That there was realistically nothing he could do.  Ellison had merely smiled fondly at him and told him that they were in this together… no matter what.  Blair had felt all his insides turn to mush at the security chief’s softly spoken words, and had agreed that he could stay.  Jim had spent the night helping where he could, but still spending far too much time simply standing on the sidelines, waiting.  Jim didn’t really cope well with waiting.  In many ways, the night had been far more stressful to the Sentinel that it had been to either Taggart or himself, because they, at least, had been busy.  Now, after all of that, and a conference in which some old and terrible hurt had been brutally probed by some sadistic bastard of an Admiral, the man was tired and in pain and in desperate need of time to rest.  Blair wasn’t sure that he had it in him to renew his Sentinel’s pain by probing the man’s wounds himself.  Not tonight, anyway.

 

The empath was so caught up in his internal struggle over what he should do, that he almost walked into the wall when Ellison turned sharply to face the door to their quarters.  Blair blinked several times as he tried to wrap his head around the fact that they were ‘home’ already, and his time to decide what to do had run out, as Ellison punched the security code into the keypad by the door so that they could enter their rooms.  The door opened with a soft whoosh of air, and the Guide followed his Sentinel into their rooms.

 

Ellison walked into the centre of the room, and then turned to face his Guide.

 

“Listen, Kid, I’m beat.” Jim’s face was a study in cool neutrality as he looked at the young man.  “I’m going to get some sleep.  I’d suggest you do the same.”

 

The young empath looked up at his Sentinel’s stony countenance and shuttered eyes, and felt the pain that the bigger man was trying to hide from him and acknowledged that he didn’t know what he should do.  So Blair did what he felt like doing, and walked forward until he was right in the Security Chief’s personal space, then threw his arms around the larger man and threw the bond wide open from his end.  He focused all of his trust and faith and affection, as well as his own exhaustion, his sorrow that Jim had been hurt, and his frustration with himself, because he simply didn’t know how to best help his friend.  The scientist felt the Sentinel attempt to push him away, but Blair simply closed his eyes and held on even tighter.  After a moment, the body he held onto lost it’s pained rigidity, and softened enough to curl around him slightly.  After another moment, Blair both felt and heard the weary sigh that rumbled up from somewhere in Ellison’s soul, and the younger man felt a surge of relief when his friend’s arms came up to encircle his own shoulders.  It seemed that going with what his heart dictated had been the right thing to do after all.

 

“I’m sorry.”  Blair felt the husky words as they escaped on a deep exhalation.  “I don’t know why I’m such an asshole sometimes.”

 

Blair responded to the guilt-ridden tone by pressing his face even harder into the chest that it rested against.  “You’re not being an asshole, you’re just not the automaton that you’d like everyone to think you are.  All living things lash out when they’re hurt and feeling ‘cornered’.  I’m the one that should be saying sorry if I made you feel trapped.  I didn’t mean to.”

 

“You didn’t.” Ellison sighed again, and then Blair felt a big hand come up to begin a gentle massage against the back of his neck.  “I just…  I didn’t want this to touch you.  You signed on to be my Guide, not deal with all the baggage I’m dragging around with me.  You’re already hurting.  I can feel that headache of yours through the bond.  You got that headache trying to look after me.  The last thing you needed was to be having to deal with what I’m feeling right now as well.”

 

Blair resisted the urge to release his own sigh of exasperation.  How many times, and in how many ways did he have to say this?  “Jim, I find it a lot easier to deal with your pain, than  find it to deal with your distance.  We’re bonded, and that means we’re supposed to deal with each other’s shit!  If you’re tired, or in pain, or just need me, then for God’s sake, draw on me.  I might hurt for you, but the only way that you could hurt me is to push me away.   Stop trying to protect me from yourself, Ellison.  I’m a hell of a lot stronger than I look.”  Blair pushed himself back slightly then, so that he could look his Sentinel directly in the eyes.  “More than strong enough, in fact, to kick your ass if you keep pulling this shit with me, man.”  He waited until his fierce expression had earned him a small, and somewhat pained, smile, then settled his head back against his Sentinel’s chest.  “So cut it out, man, ‘cause you’re pissing me off, here.” Blair allowed all of the warmth and worry that he felt for his friend to flow freely through the bond and soften his words.

 

A small, rather weak chuckle flowed over the top of his head, before Ellison’s arms tightened around him briefly.  “I’m trying, kid.”

 

Blair nodded against the man’s chest, and allowed a smile to overtake his own face.  “You certainly are!” he said with feeling.

 

For a second, the large hand that had been massaging the back of Blair’s neck paused, and the young empath held his breath.  He was rewarded by a surge of amusement cutting through the predominantly dark emotions that his Sentinel was caught up in.

 

“God, you’re a shit-stirrer.” Ellison chuckled suddenly, and Blair nodded contentedly against the larger man’s chest, pleased beyond words that he had been able to get through his friend’s pain, even in such a small way.  “I mean it though.  I am trying.  It’s just… hard.  Sometimes I can’t get past that.”

 

“I know.” Blair agreed, because he did know, strangely enough.  He could feel the struggle in his Sentinel.  The constant war that was being fought between a lifetime of conditioning, and just on three days of being bonded.  “I know that it’s not easy, big guy, just promise me that you’ll keep trying.  It’ll get easier.  I swear it will.”

 

“I promise, Chief.”  Ellison nodded against the top of his head.

 

“Good.” Blair sighed.  “That’s the easy part out of the way.  Now we get to the really hard part.”  The young empath paused and drew in a deep breath.  “Do.  You.  Want.  To.  Talk.  About.  It.” He said slowly and precisely.  He waited, willing Ellison to open up to him, but after a moment, Jim gave him a gentle pat on the back, a wordless signal that it was time to release the death grip that he had on his Sentinel.  Sandburg fought the desire to scream in frustration.  Somehow, he’d just known that that would happen as soon as he asked that question.  Reluctantly, he allowed his arms to fall to his sides, and fought to keep his expression neutral as Ellison stepped back.

 

“Not really.” Ellison finally responded.

 

“You know,” Blair said in as conversational a tone of voice as he could manage while crossing his arms across his chest, “I could have sworn that we just had a conversation about this…”

 

Ellison had the good grace to look embarrassed at that.  “It’s not like that, Chief.” The older man grimaced. “It’s classified.  I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

 

Blair snorted in disgust.  “Riiiight.” He drawled.  “And isn’t it just beyond handy that you have that to fall back on when you don’t want to talk about something.”

 

“I’m not kidding, Kid.” Ellison growled.  “There are rules about not even telling the people you’re closest to about what happens on a mission.”

 

“Oh come on, Jim!” Blair huffed, “It’s not like we’re fucking married, here.  I’m your Guide.  Normal rules don’t apply to our relationship.  Our being bonded makes my knowing about something, absolutely no different than you knowing about something.  I can already feel your emotions about what happened. You might as well give me some information to go with these feelings.”

 

“Blair, no.” Jim frowned.

 

“Jim, yes!” Blair badgered.

 

“I can’t…” Ellison began, only to be cut off by his Guide.

 

“Of course you can!” Sandburg pressed.

 

“Look, Kid…” The Sentinel was retreating now, and Blair jumped in to press his advantage.

 

“Come on, Jim!”  The young empath pushed.

 

“That’s enough!” Ellison suddenly roared, and the wave of pain and frustration that hit Blair through the bond rocked the younger man back on his heels like a blow.

 

“Shutting up, now.” Blair said in a very small voice.  The headache that Blair had been keeping at bay by focusing on his Sentinel’s needs came suddenly crashing down on him again, and he swayed under the impact of it.  “I’m, umm, just going to go to my room, now, man.  I’ll see you in the morning.” Blair turned and began to walk toward the door that connected the Sentinel’s room to his own quarters.

 

Before he could take three steps toward it though, a large hand latched onto his arm, just above the elbow, and halted his progress.  Weariness and remorse and that omnipresent pain washed through Blair as Jim gently but insistently pulled the younger man around to face him again.

 

“Don’t go, Kid.”  Jim’s voice was gentle and heavy with regret.  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

 

Blair set his jaw, and stared resolutely at the broad chest in front of him.  After a moment, the younger man finally raised his eyes and looked grimly up into his Sentinel’s face.  “You have to talk about this, Jim.  Whatever it is, its hurt you and its eating at you, and I can’t allow that.  I can’t fix a wound that I can’t see though.  You need to trust me, here.  I can’t help you until you’re willing to talk about it.”

 

Jim stared down at his young Guide, and Blair focused on sending reassurance and acceptance through the bond.  The Sentinel’s face became an agony of indecision for a split second, before he looked away, his jaw clenching almost spasmodically.  Blair continued to wait for the man in silence, knowing that it was important that he do so.  After long moments of silence, Jim Ellison finally turned back to his Guide.  Blair could sense that the older man had come to a decision, and held his breath as he waited to see which side of the fence his Sentinel would come down on.

 

‘Come on, man,’ he thought desperately, ‘trust me, here…’

 

“Okay.” the taller man almost croaked, and Blair knew how much that concession had cost his friend.  The young empath suddenly felt as though he would burst with pride at his Sentinel’s courage.  The taller man looked down on him, his eyes clearly displaying his pain.  “You think that it’s important, Chief, so I’ll do it, but… just…” Jim swallowed and looked away,  “not tonight, okay, Kid?  Just, not tonight.”

 

Blair looked up into his partner’s agonized face, and felt his exhaustion and pain through their bond.  Jim had just effectively given him his word that they would talk about whatever it was that had hurt him so badly, but his earlier thoughts still held true.  Jim had been through enough for today.  And his own headache would not allow him to be able to focus on this with the intensity that the situation warranted.  So the young empath nodded, and stepped forward to embrace his bond-mate again, this time in comfort.

 

“Okay, man.” Blair nodded against his Sentinel’s chest.  “Not tonight.”

 

Ellison sighed wearily.  “Thanks, kid.”

 

“’S okay.” Blair whispered, and for a moment, they were both content to just rest like that.  After a moment though, Jim shifted slightly and whispered something that the empath didn’t quite catch.  “What’s that man?” the younger man asked with a small smile.  “You’ll have to speak up a bit.  Not all of us have sentinel hearing, you know.”

 

Ellison cleared his throat at that.  “I said, that you were wrong.” He said clearly.

 

Blair pulled back, and looked up into his Sentinel’s face in confusion.  “Wrong about what?” the scientist asked blankly.

 

“About you not being able to help me, if I didn’t talk about it.” Ellison said solemnly.  “You do.  You are right now.”

 

Blair Sandburg stared up at the taller man for a long moment, intensely aware of the bright warmth that had filled his chest at the big man’s quiet words.  For a moment, he didn’t trust himself to speak.  He simply stood there and thanked whatever deities had been at work when Serena Chang had come into his office, just in time for her to need a guide to the med centre.  Blair had to swallow a few times, before risking speaking again.  “I’m glad.” He replied softly, and Ellison gifted him with a small smile.  Blair swallowed again, then pulled away, and caught hold of his Sentinel’s sleeve.  “Come on, man.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it for today.  I need get some sleep, and we both need to focus on the bond for a while.  If you don’t mind sharing a sleeping platform again, we can take care of both things at the same time.”

 

“I don’t mind, Chief.” Ellison said quietly, and then with a little more force added.  “But we eat before we do anything else.”

 

“You go ahead if you’re hungry.” Blair waved his Sentinel over to the replicator.  “I’m too tired to eat.”

 

“Wrong, Kid.  We’re both eating.” The older man scowled darkly.  “You’re too skinny to be missing meals.”

 

Excuse me?” Blair looked at the older man incredulously.  “What are you, my mother?”

 

Jim glanced at him strangely, and Blair caught a sense of something through the bond.  It was gone too quickly for the empath to identify, but whatever it was, it hadn’t felt complimentary.  “No, Kid, I don’t think I’m your mother.  I think that I’m your Sentinel, and I need my Guide to be in good shape physically.  You need to eat.  Please?”

 

Blair tried not to look at the older man’s tired, worried expression.  He knew that he was being emotionally blackmailed, but… well… Jim had been through a lot today.  He didn’t want to add a fight about something as unimportant as eating to list of the day’s woes.

 

“Alright.” The younger man sighed, before his innate sense of independence forced him to add, “But only because I don’t want to fight about it tonight.  Don’t get used to the idea that you can get me to do whatever you want like that.”

 

Jim looked at him for a long moment, before a small, enigmatic smile touched the taller man’s face.  “We’ll see.” He said quietly.  “Now, what do you want to eat?” The Sentinel turned toward the replicator, and Blair had the sudden, uncomfortable feeling, that he’d just managed to get himself into a world of trouble somehow, but for the life of him, he couldn’t place his finger on what it was that he’d done wrong.

 


 

Twelve hours later, Jim Ellison was pouring over the records of his new staff.  They had been waiting for him on the security computer when he’d arrived at his office after coming back on duty.  There had been a message attached to them from Commander Connor, saying that she had looked them over, and found them to be satisfactory.  Ellison found that he agreed with the First Officer’s summary.  It was with a certain amount of relief that he realized that he’d finally be dealing with a full and competent staff now.  He had been about an hour into reading the records of his new crew when he’d sent out a priority message to all security staff, informing them that there would be a staff meeting an hour later.  He knew that his new people were still trying to settle themselves in, and that some of his staff were off-duty, and would have probably been awakened from sleep by his message.  He was unhappy with disturbing his people's well-earned rest, but there were things that they all needed to be aware of and the sooner that they were informed, the better off the whole crew would be.

 

Jim glanced at his chronometer.  He still had about twenty minutes before the meeting.  He had finished reading the official files that he had been sent on his people, but the information those files contained could only tell him a portion of what he truly needed to know about them to be able to use them effectively to protect the ship.  He had met a number of his staff briefly and unofficially on the morning that he had reviewed his original staff-files.  Those meetings for the most part were too brief and superficial to provide him with very much in the way of real information about the beings who, like himself, were charged with the safe-keeping of the Raptor and its crew.  Strengths and weaknesses needed to be established over time.  He would begin the task of getting to know his people, inside as well as out, at this meeting.  He already knew that the duty roster that he had thrown together would need a lot of fine-tuning to make optimal use of his people, but it would do for the short term.

 

Ellison leaned back in his chair, and tried to force himself to relax.  He took several deep breaths and let them out slowly, but the muscles in his shoulders and down his back remained as tight as coiled springs.  Ellison grimaced in frustration.  He knew what the problem was, but knowing did nothing to help him. 

 

James Ellison had been in this situation before.  Unfortunately, the last time that he had found himself looking down the barrel of a mission that had ‘felt’ wrong to him, it had all gone very badly.  Ellison savagely cut that thought off at the knees.  He would not think about the mission to PV32.  The situations may be similar, but they were not identical.  More importantly, Jim now had hindsight to call upon.  He would not make the same mistakes.  He would not lose another crew.  Not this time.  Not when the stakes had been made so much higher.

 

Almost of their own volition, Ellison’s eyes swung over to the wall consul, where his Guide was working.  A tiny smile tugged at his lips as he recalled how vehement the younger man had been about stating that he wanted to stay with his Sentinel today.  Jim knew that the Science Officer still had a lot to do before the mission deadline himself, and he knew that the younger man would have a far easier time doing those things from his own office.  However, Jim also knew that the empath was worried about him.  So worried, in fact, that he would rather sit in the security office, and try to sort out his department from an uncomfortable position in front of a consul that was not directly linked to the databases that he needed to access, than leave the Sentinel alone.  Ellison felt a burst of warmth in his chest as he thought back to their brief argument this morning.  Actually, it hadn’t really been much of an argument.  Jim had argued.  Blair had simply stood firm.  And in the end, Jim hadn’t really fought the younger man on the issue as much as he probably should have.  Because as much as Ellison hated to be argued with when he knew that he was right, there had been a part of him that had reveled in the evidence of his Guide’s caring, and he wasn’t above indulging that.

 

As James Ellison took in the image of his young Guide, hard at work, he swore to himself again that he would not repeat the mistakes of the past.  Jim knew that Blair was deeply worried about his reaction to Oliver’s needling during the vid conference.  Once again, Jim cursed himself for the over reaction that had betrayed the damage that the Admiral had had inflicted upon him before, during and after the doomed mission to PV32.  He then cursed himself for taking his pain out on the most readily available target.  All Blair had done was care about him, and Jim had lashed out at him with the mindless aggression of a wounded animal.  The Sentinel was deeply embarrassed by his own reactions.  He knew in his heart that Blair forgave him, but that didn’t calm the churning in his gut that queried how many times he would be allowed to fuck up before Blair gave up on him.  Oh, he knew that Blair could not leave him.  They were bonded to each other.  But Blair could and would withdraw the warm affection that he had been basking in since the moment of their bonding if he didn’t stop screwing up.  Jim clenched his jaw, and looked away.  He was trying,  it was just that it was so hard to stop his automatic reactions to things.

 

“Jim?”  The quiet voice dragged him out of his bleak thoughts, and Ellison turned to find himself being regarded by a pain of worried, ocean-blue eyes.  “You okay, man?”

 

The Sentinel felt another burst of warmth erupt in his chest as he realized that the younger man had been monitoring him through the bond, and had sensed his anxiety.  “Yeah, Chief, I’m fine.” Ellison forced out around the lump in his throat.  “Just… you know… worried about all this.” The Security Chief made a vague gesture with his hand and hoped that the empath would take it to mean their situation in general.  In response, the younger man turned around to face his Sentinel directly, and gifted his partner with a warm, confident smile.

 

“It’ll be okay, big guy.” The empath said with a degree of certainty that both amazed and humbled the older man.  “You’ll make everything be okay.  I know you will.”

 

Jim looked at the trusting face of his Guide and swore a silent oath to do whatever it took to prove himself worthy of that trust.  “Thanks Kid.” he said quietly.

 

“Just calling it like I see it, man.” Sandburg gave a little shrug and another brilliant smile before turning back to his consul.  Ellison dragged his eyes off the empath and forced himself to stare at the computer screen instead.

 

Ellison’s biggest problem was Admiral Oliver’s involvement in the situation.  His heart told him that Oliver had betrayed the team that he had led to PV32.  His heart told him that the Admiral was somehow behind the sabotage that the Raptor had endured.  Unfortunately, Ellison knew from bitter experience that what his heart was telling him would not count as sufficient evidence to convict the oily son-of-a-bitch for treason.  And Oliver was good.  Far too good to leave a trail that could connect him to the sabotage.  It was frustrating as hell, knowing that the bastard had managed to get away with it again, but ultimately, Ellison had to push his anger at the situation aside.  The only thing that mattered at this point was making sure that he continued to thwart Oliver.  The Sentinel didn’t know what the Admiral hoped to gain with their deaths, and in the end, it didn’t really matter.  Because they wouldn’t be dying.  Ellison was on to Oliver’s game, now, and if these enhanced senses of his could give him an advantage over that conniving ass-hole, then he would embrace them with all of the enthusiasm that Blair displayed toward them.  He would keep this ship and it’s crew safe.  He would not fail again.

 

A small, grim smile touched his face as he thought about the measures that he would need to take to ensure the safety of the ship.  His first step would be to inform his staff of what it was that they were up against.  This was where the saboteur’s own handiwork would backfire.  The new staff had come almost exclusively from the Intelligence sector.  That would work in Ellison’s favor.  He knew only too well that while he had not succeeded in proving his suspicion that Oliver was behind the ambush his team had suffered on PV32, his attempts to do so had hurt the Admiral’s credibility.  The Intelligence sector was fueled by rumor and innuendo.  Intelligence operatives learned early to keep their ear to the ground.  Gossip often held more of the truth than ‘official’ reports did.  His new staff would have heard the rumors started by his return from PV32, and the information those rumors contained would have been stored away for future reference.  His people would be willing to listen to his suspicions and would be willing to act with a level of paranoia that would work in favor of the ship.  Because the one thing that all Intelligence operatives developed even earlier than the ability to ferret out gossip, was the awareness that paranoia could keep you alive.  And once they knew that there was a possibility that the threat to the ship was coming from within Starfleet itself, they would be unwilling to take anything for granted.

 

The paranoia that he was about to engender would keep his people alive, and as a result, keep the rest of the crew alive.  Oliver had inadvertently made Ellison’s job easier.  His people would be able to keep the ship safe until the mission date, and he would take over from there.  The one thing that he knew from his own previous experience was that sabotaging the ship from within was the least of what his enemy could do.  If Ellison was right about who their enemy truly was, then he knew only too well the depths of treason that the man would sink to.  He would use that hard won knowledge to ensure that this ship and this crew remained safe.  Between his knowledge of the enemy, and his own newfound abilities, he knew that he could thwart Oliver.  It just meant that he and Sandburg were going to have a lot to do between that moment and the mission date.

 

Ellison was once again broken out of his reverie but his Guide’s voice.  “Hey Jim,” the young man said from over at his consul, and Jim looked up to see the empath grinning at him cheekily, “I do not know what it is that you’re lookin’ at on that screen, man, but I can almost guarantee that you aren’t going to be able to stare it down.”

 

“That’s what you think, Junior.” Ellison growled with a mock fierce glare.

 

“Oh,” Blair grinned, “well, ‘scuse me all to hell for doubting your intimidatory abilities, tough guy, but the fact remain that I don’t think you’re going to have enough time here to make that sucker crack.  We’re going to have to get moving if we wanna make that meeting you called.”

 

Ellison glanced at his chronometer again sharply and swore as he realized just how long he had been sitting there contemplating the days ahead.  He leapt to his feet and began to stride to the door.  He had to get to the conference room fast if he didn’t want to be late for his own meeting.  He was about a meter from the door when the Sentinel stopped abruptly and turned toward his young Guide.  “What do you mean ‘we’, kid?  This is a Security meeting.  You aren’t coming.”

 

“Oh yes I am.” Sandburg walked over to join the sentinel, his voice irritatingly complacent, “After all, you and I are going to be pretty much joined at the hip for the next few days.  Your staff might as well start getting used to it now, rather than later.”

 

The Security Chief glared down at his serene-looking partner, opened his mouth to argue, and then abruptly shut it again.  He didn’t have time to start an argument that he already knew that he was going to lose.  Instead he turned on his heel and marched out the door, focusing intently on ignoring the soft sounds of amusement that his Guide was making as he trotted along behind him.

 

It could never be said that James Ellison didn’t learn from his mistakes… Eventually.

 

To Ellison’s immense relief, he found himself stalking through the conference room door at the precise moment he’d called the meeting for.  It was a far better thing for a C.O. to appear precisely on time for a meeting than it was to turn up late.  That sort of thing encouraged a similar tendency in the troops, and that was the last thing he wanted.  To his approval, a quick glance around and silent head count told him that everyone was here and ready to begin.  They were off to a promising start, at least.

 

James Ellison walked to the head of the conference room table, and took his first real look at his assembled people.  The Raptor contained a full compliment of one hundred and fifty eight people.  Of that, forty-two were assigned to security.  Given the brief that the Raptor had for working in the Neutral Zone, it really wasn’t surprising that the ship’s crew contained such a high percentage of security staff.  As he looked around at them where they sat lounging in chairs, or resting against walls, he acknowledged that while some of them were looking pretty damned tired and harried, they were an impressive looking group.

 

Ellison took a good, long look around, and decided that the best way to deal with this group was to cut straight to the point.  “My name is James Ellison, and I am your direct C.O. on this mission.” The tall man said with the quiet authority of one used to command.  “I am aware of the fact that many of you have only just arrived, and many others of you have been pulled away from some much needed rest.  Under normal circumstances, I would have preferred to have given you all some more time to settle in before calling an initial briefing, but as you are all no doubt already aware, the circumstances that this ship finds itself in are anything but normal.

 

As you are also aware, this ship is central to a groundbreaking treaty between the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Empire.  Over the past month, a series of incidents have occurred with increasing regularity which have put this ship well behind schedule, and has, as a result, threatened the treaty.  Those incidents culminated two days ago, when it was discovered that faulty Dilithium crystals had been installed in the ship’s warp drive.  That discovery has forced the Federation to acknowledge that someone is attempting to sabotage this ship.

 

The official line is that there are factions within the Federation that do not want the treaty with the Romulans to go ahead.  Even as we speak, Intelligence is working to ‘route out’ these supposed traitors within the ranks of Starfleet.  The fact remains though, whoever it is that is behind these attempts on the ship was able to very nearly pull off the destruction of a starship while the ship was still in Earth Space.  For that reason alone, our department can’t afford to leave protecting this ship and it’s crew to Intelligence.” Ellison paused then and looked around.  He was aware of the fact that he had the complete and undivided attention of everyone in the room.  It was time to drive this issue home.

 

“I am aware that technically, our task as protectors of this ship does not commence until the mission date.  However, with the situation that this ship is facing, we need to be ready to take up the mantle of guardians of the ship and its crew now, because if we don’t, if we leave this in the hands of others, we may not survive to see the mission commence.” 

 

“You suspect that our problem lies within Starfleet Intelligence itself.” A heavily accented female voice said softly.  Ellison focused quickly on the speaker.  She was an immensely tall woman with pale skin and jet black, curly hair.  He knew her instantly.  She had been one of the first people to sign up for the security sector of this ship.  Katrine Romanov.  Ex-Intelligence.  Ex-Covert-Op’s.  Ex-assassin.  He acknowledged, then mentally dismissed the woman’s attractiveness.  It was the same type of attractiveness that he himself held for so many others.  Top predators of any type inevitably held their own sort of beauty.  What was of interest to the Sentinel was the grim certainty in both the woman’s voice and eyes.  The woman knew how the game was played, and had drawn her own conclusions about what was going on.

 

“I suspect that someone highly placed within Starfleet Intelligence is acting with whatever faction is involved in the sabotage attempts on this ship, yes.” Ellison confirmed calmly.

 

“But how is that possible?” Ellison glanced over at the handsome young man currently speaking and fought the urge to sigh.  Of all of the people he had retained after ‘cleaning out’ his staff, this one worried him the most.  Brian Rafe was young, and had requested posting to this department in order to gain some much needed field experience.  He was a candidate for Starfleet Command Training.  He was young, enthusiastic, intelligent, idealistic, and completely clueless about how the universe really worked.  “I mean, to reach the higher positions of Starfleet Intelligence, a person would need to have an extremely high security rating.  Surely someone with either fanatical political tendencies, or a mercenary streak would have been weeded out before they reached such a position…”

 

“Ah, my brother, how little you know about how the Intelligence sector really works.” chuckled a melodious voice from beside the confused young man.  Ellison glanced at Rafe’s neighbor and relaxed slightly.  Henri Brown, like Ellison, had come to the Raptor from the Intelligence sector’s Covert Operations teams.  Ellison had worked with the laid-back Brown before, and he had taken a small amount of time when he’d originally begun pulling his department into some semblance of shape several days ago to speak to Brown about the department’s greenest recruit.  Ellison figured that if anyone could gentle such a naive, overly enthusiastic kid into a competent officer without losing their temper and killing him along the way, it’d be Brown.  The man was unflappable.  He’d asked the man to take the kid under his wing, and Brown had apparently taken the task on board.

 

“About the Intelligence Sector, kid, this is lesson number one.” A scar-faced Tellorite lisped harshly from further along the table.  “T’ survive, a ruthless bastard must y’ be.  And to the top, shit rises.”  There were soft murmurings of agreement from around the table at this comment.  Ellison recognized the Tellorite as one of his new people.  The leather skinned being was a highly trained weapon’s technician, and Ellison knew that he was lucky to have him on the team.

 

“My suspicions are, at this point, irrelevant, as I can’t prove a damned thing.” Ellison growled then, and silence fell across the conference room once again.  “Who ever it is that’s out to destroy us, the only thing that we have to worry about is the safety of this ship and its crew.   Officers from outside this ship may be acting under orders to protect us, but we have a far more compelling reason to make sure no one else succeeds in sabotaging this ship.  At the end of the day, it’s our lives on the line.”  Ellison paused, and raked an intense glare around the room.  “Ladies and gentlemen, someone out there wants you and all of your colleagues on this ship dead.  It’s up to all of us to ensure that whoever our enemy is, they don’t get that satisfaction.”

 

Ellison looked around once again, and was well pleased with what he saw.  His people had the look of a hunting party about them now.  They were ready and focused.  Now it was time to give them direction.  “As of this moment, we are engaging every last damned protocol involved in repairing a ship close to the edges of Federation Territory.  I don’t care that Space Dock isn’t some dinky Deep Space Station, and I really don’t care that we’re still in Earth Space.  We’re potentially going to come under attack again at any time, and we’re going to treat the situation with the seriousness that it disserves.  You’ll be working in pairs, to reduce the possibility of a security officer being taken by surprise.  Pairings and a duty roster have been forwarded to your personal files.  You’ll be able to access them through the consul’s in your rooms.  Check them out as soon as we’re finished here.  Remember, the duty roster is not set in stone.  If you want changes to be made, it can be arranged, but make sure that you’ve got a good reason for wanting to change.  I want all of you to be as comfortable with your positions as you can be, because we’ve got a hard job ahead of us, without anyone being made uncomfortable by factors that could be dealt with.  If you have a problem, talk to me.  I don’t want anything distracting you from the task at hand.

 

Visitors to the ship will be treated with the courtesy of a visiting dignitary, but with the caution of a potential threat to the welfare of the crew.   I don’t want any outsider left alone on this ship for any reason.  Any work done by outside technicians is to be observed, noted and checked out by our own people as soon as possible.  I don’t want a repeat of the situation with the Dilithium crystals.  Just keeping an eye on our visitors is going to keep us very busy people.  I received word from the Captain that the Federation has approved the emergency funding required to get this ship on line by the stated deadline.  What that means for us is that we are going to be inundated by outside specialists and extra staff.  Any one of those people could be a saboteur.  We can’t afford to allow ourselves to grow complacent with them.  Each and every one of them will be a potential threat, and they are to be handled as such.

 

The ship’s security grids have been brought fully on line, and there will be at least two security officers on the bridge at all times, monitoring the grid. Anything, and I do mean anything out of the ordinary is to be treated as a potential threat, and the appropriate protocols are to be observed.  I don’t care if it seems extreme.  From this moment, we respond to anything that we aren’t one hundred percent sure about.  I’d rather have a pile of false alarms under our belts as training exercises, than be dead because we overlooked something.

 

We’re going to be constantly assuming the worst here people, and it’s hard work to maintain that degree of battle readiness day in, and day out, so I’m limiting shift time.  No one, under any circumstances, is to work a double shift.  I don’t want someone making a mistake because they were tired.  When you’re off-duty, I want you to relax.  I don’t want to see anyone hanging around the security office in their off duty hours.” A small smile of understanding touched Ellison’s face as he looked around.  “I know it’s a bitch under these circumstances to put your life in other people’s hands, and that some of you have come from areas that push self-sufficiency a little harder than they should, but have faith.  Everyone else on the team has just as much of a desire to stay alive as you do.”  Ellison drew a deep breath then, and glanced over his shoulder at the small figure trying very conscientiously to stay right out of the way.  He’d seen the curious glances that younger man had drawn, standing there at the back.  It was time to introduce his warriors to his Guide.

 

“By the way,” Ellison said almost casually, “This is Dr Sandburg.  He’s the ship’s Science Officer.  He’ll be working with us as a whole, and with me specifically, to ensure the safety of the ship.  It was Dr Sandburg’s efforts that caused the fault with the Dilithium crystals to be identified so quickly.  If he tells you to do something, then do it.”  Ellison allowed a dry note to enter his voice.  “He’s tougher than he looks, so try not to piss him off.  Believe me, you’d end up regretting it.”

 

“That’s about it for now, people.”  Ellison said with a final look around.  “Keep your eyes and ears open, stay alert, and watch each others’ backs.  We have just on three days until this ship sets out to undertake its mission.  I’ll keep you all abreast of any important developments, via your personal files.  Check them regularly.” He waited for that assortment of affirmative motions and sounds from his staff before nodding.  “Dismissed.”

 


 

Blair Sandburg watched the members of the security staff gradually file out of the conference room and disperse.  The Security section made up near one third of the ship’s entire crew, and realistically speaking, even the conference room, the largest room in the ship, wasn’t really big enough for all of them.  Particularly when they were all so… impressive.  When Blair had followed his Sentinel into the room, he’d had the sudden uncomfortable feeling that either he had shrunk, or he’d inadvertently stepped into the land of the giants.  Even those that weren’t really that much bigger than himself seemed somehow larger than life to him.  He supposed that it must have something to do with the air of competent self-sufficiency that they all seemed to exude.  What ever it was, it was as annoying as hell. 

 

Blair watched as Jim called the tall Russian woman over to set up an appointment to discuss appointing her as Ellison’s second in command within the department.  The Sentinel had discussed doing so with him while they were eating their breakfast earlier. Jim seemed to think that she had the right combination of brains, training, and a willingness to throw away the rulebook when the situation warranted it to look after the department if the Sentinel could not watch out for his ‘tribe’ for some reason. Blair watched his partner talk quietly with the woman.  He acknowledged that the woman was very attractive, but there was something in the way she held herself that practically screamed ‘danger’.  Actually, it wasn’t unlike the air of danger that surrounded the Sentinel.

 

Blair was still pondering the similarities between the two warriors when Romanov finally moved away.  He was so deep in thought, that he completely missed the fact that the last of the security staff had finally departed, and he and Ellison were on their own again.

 

“You okay, there, kid?” Ellison’s quiet voice from beside him brought him out of his reverie with a start.

 

“Err, yeah.” Blair blinked rapidly, trying to extract himself from the place his thoughts had taken him.

 

“You sure, Chief,” Ellison asked, concern written across his face.  “You look a little dazed.  You sure your barriers held up against being in such a confined space with so many people okay?”

 

It was the look on Jim’s face, combined with the burst of worry he sensed when Ellison touched his arm that finally managed to drag Blair all the way back from his thoughts.  He focused and sent a wave of soothing reassurance through the bond, while he turned a self-depreciating little smile toward his Sentinel.  “Naw, man, I’m fine. Honest.  Just, lost in thought for a moment.”

 

Ellison arched an eyebrow at him sardonically.  “That must have been scary.” The taller man drawled.

 

“Terrifying.” Blair agreed with a grin, before walking over and seating himself on the conference table.  “The meeting seemed to go well.” He observed.

 

“Seemed to.” Ellison agreed.  “They all seemed to be focused and genuine, but it’s a little hard to tell when you’re talking to a large group like that.” The Security Chief wandered over and leaned back against the table next to him.  “Did you pick up on anything out of place?”

 

“Hmm?” Blair made a questioning noise as he looked at his partner, before his brain caught up with what was being asked.  “Oh!  No.  Nothing out of place.” Blair shrugged slightly, “But, then again, I did have my barriers up as high as I could get them.  I didn’t really sense much of anything.”

 

“Ah.” Ellison nodded sagely.  “So, what were you risking getting lost in that squirrelly little mind of yours about, anyway.” Ellison gave a little grin.  “I thought that you’d had one of these zone-out things on me for a minute there.”

 

“Oh, I was just wondering if there was some way of determining the gene or genes that determine whether someone will be a Sentinel or not.” Blair shrugged.

 

“Why?” Ellison sounded a little nonplused at that.

 

“I was just watching you and Lieutenant Romanov a minute ago.  In some ways, you’re so much alike.  I was just wondering if it was possible that she carried the sentinel genes as well…” Blair’s off-hand ramblings ended in a startled yelp as an almost murderous wave of aggression flooded the bond, and a pair of vice-like hands closed around his upper arms.  Blair looked up in shock and was surprised to find his Sentinel’s nose only centimeters away from his own.  Ellison’s ice-blue eyes were suddenly boring into him, and the younger man belatedly recognized the feral Sentinel that he had first met in the medical centre when they had initially bonded.  ‘Uh oh.’  Blair thought dazedly.

 

“Looking to replace me, little Guide.” The Sentinel’s voice dropped to a low, throaty growl, and the wave of dark emotions that battered Blair suddenly through the bond would have sent him to his knees if not for the Sentinel’s grip on his arms, and the table under him.

 

‘Ooooh Lord, Sandburg.’ Blair groaned inwardly.  ‘It might pay in future to remember that your Sentinel is a territory-obsessed, genetic throwback before you start running off at the mouth…’ It appeared that his off-hand comments had inadvertently sparked some sort of weird, protective response in the primitive creature that resided within his partner’s psyche.  Blair could feel the Sentinel within Jim flexing its muscles, and he had a nasty feeling that he was going to have to think of a way of reassuring the Sentinel of his loyalty quickly, or risk this situation deteriorating.

 

Blair thought frantically for a moment.  Everything about the taller man suddenly screamed dominance and aggression.  Perhaps, then, the best way to settle the big guy down enough to get the feral sentinel to go back into the background was to be submissive… and to engage in a little emotional manipulation.  Blair made himself relax into the larger man’s confining grasp.  He lowered his eyes submissively and allowed feelings of reassurance, as well as his affection for the older man to flood the bond.

 

“You know that that is not so, Sentinel.” He said soothingly.  “You are my Sentinel.  I would have no other.  I was merely concerned that we would need to start looking for another guide, if Lieutenant Romonov carried the Sentinel gifts.”  ‘Come on, big guy,’ Blair thought as he fought to keep himself calm, and his heartbeat steady ‘Go for this.’ 

 

Ellison stared at him for a long minute, before the ice in his eyes thawed marginally, and he pulled the Guide to himself until Blair’s head rested against his chest.  Blair cautiously leaned into his Sentinel, and the confining hold the older man had taken upon him abruptly became possessive and protective.  Blair carefully raised one hand to stroke soothingly across the Sentinel’s chest.

 

“There is no need to seek a Guide for that one, Mine.  She is no Sentinel.” The voice rumbled through the chest Blair was pressed against, and he had to forcibly squelch the spark of interest that surged through him at the Sentinel’s words.  Wondering whether there was some way in which Sentinels could identify other Sentinels could wait for now.  Right now, the most important thing for Blair to do was concentrate on settling the Sentinel down enough for Jim to take over again.

 

Blair had had his head resting against his bond-mate’s chest for several minutes, focusing solely upon reassuring the larger man that he wasn’t going to run off with some other Sentinel, when a slight shudder wracked the taller man’s frame.

 

“Blair,” a confused voice whispered against his hair, “What’s going on?”

 

Blair smiled against the other man’s chest.  “Nothing to worry ‘bout, big guy.  I said the wrong thing, and your ‘Inner Sentinel’ got all concerned that I was going to defect, and run off with another.  I said that it wasn’t going to happen, and everything was cool.”

 

There was a long moment of vaguely uncomfortable silence, before Ellison spoke again.  “I… umm, I don’t really remember that.  I… I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

 

Blair responded to the worry in his partner’s voice by giving him a fierce squeeze, and then pushing away so that he could look directly into the other man’s face.  “Nah.” He grinned.  “Even at the Sentinel’s worst, I don’t think he could hurt me, and I already know that you’d never hurt me Jim.  You’re my protector, big guy!  Now, chill out, and settle down.” Blair whacked the taller man playfully on the chest.  “You look like you kicked a puppy, or somethin’ man.”

 

“It’s not funny, Blair.” Ellison growled as he backed away, his expression one of serious discomfort.  “Sometimes… Sometimes I have no control over that side of me.  It worries me.”

 

“Yeah, I know.” Blair acknowledged gently, “But I’m telling you the truth, here man.  I really think that I’m just as safe with the primal Sentinel, as I am with Commander James Ellison, Starfleet Officer.  It’s really not worth stressing about.”

 

“I think it is.” Ellison growled stubbornly, before turning and walking over to the far wall.  The tall man leaned his head against the wall for a long minute, before turning back and sighing.  “I don’t trust that side of myself, Blair, and that just makes what I have to ask you even more difficult.”

 

“What do you have to ask me, Jim?” Blair asked seriously, as he felt the stirrings of alarm at the misery he was picking up on through the bond.

 

The Security Chief leaned back against the wall and studied the ceiling for a long minute, before turning embarrassed eyes back on Blair.  “I need to ask you if we can step up the training.” Ellison grimaced.

 

Blair felt himself go almost lightheaded with relief.  “What’s so bad about that, big guy?” he asked cheerfully as he leapt off the table that he had been sitting on, “I mean, personally, I’m really pleased that you feel comfortable enough to try to speed things up…”

 

“I’m not comfortable with it!” Jim cut him off with a hiss of frustration.  “It’s just that, I know that the attempts to sabotage this ship won’t end when we leave Star Dock.  I can feel it, Blair.  I have to be ready for whatever comes next, and the only real advantage I’ve got are these damned senses!  We have to step up the training, because I don’t have enough time as it is to get a grip on this.  I hate to ask it of you, seeing as we all know how little control I have over that side of myself, but it’s all I can think of to keep us one step ahead of whoever wants us dead!”

 

Blair looked at his bond-mates troubled expression for a long moment before responding.  “Jim,” he said slowly, “I’m sorry that you’re still so uncomfortable with who and what you are.  I wish that there were some way that I could make you see yourself in the same light that I see you in.  And Guiding you isn’t some onerous task that you have to plead with me to perform; it’s an honor.  I’ll continue to help you to gain control, big guy, but only as fast as I think you’re up to going.  I’m not going to hurt you by pushing you too hard, too fast.” Blair looked at the older man seriously for a long moment.  “As fast as I say, Ellison, and no faster.  Got it?”

 

Ellison scowled, then glared at the floor for a long moment.  “Got it.” He growled.

 

They stood in silence for a long minute, before Ellison looked up at him and sighed deeply.  “Come on,” he growled.

 

“Come on?” Blair queried.  “Where are we going?”

 

“Your office.” The taller man grimaced.  “Time for me to work off of your wall consul for a while.  You spend a few hours getting your department up and going, and then we can work out my next torture session.  Okay?”

 

“Okay.” Blair said quietly.  Ellison looked as though he might say something else for a minute, but the Sentinel evidently either changed his mind, or couldn’t think of how to say whatever it was that he wanted to say, because he abruptly turned and walked out.  Blair gave a little smile, and shook his head, before trotting after his partner. He couldn’t help but muse that James Ellison wasn’t nearly as hopeless a case as he sometimes appeared to be.  After all, he might groan and complain about it, but the man really did trust him already.  ‘The tricky part of the relationship, Blair thought a little sadly, ‘is going to be teaching Ellison to trust himself.’

 


 

The days that followed were in many ways an out-and-out nightmare.  The ship had suddenly been inundated with people charged with a variety of tasks that would ensure that the Raptor was ready for departure by the appropriate stardate.  Because approving the necessary budget changes had been left to pretty much the last possible moment, all of those extra people had things to do that really needed doing yesterday, and they were all trying to get their ‘very important jobs’ done while working on top of one another.  And because of their circumstances, security was trying to keep an eye and an ear on every last one of them.

 

As hard as everyone else on the ship was working to meet a deadline that had looked unattainable only days earlier, Security was having to run rings around everyone else.  It was exhausting, nerve-wracking work.  Any outsider might be a saboteur.  It was even possible that someone assigned to the ship itself might be the kind of extremist that considered suicide an honorable sort of an end.  The latter possibility was unlikely, because the earlier staffing scare had made all of the section heads examine their staff records very carefully.  It was difficult to hide the sort of political fanaticism that produced suicidal tendencies.  Unfortunately, it was still a possibility, and it needed to be considered.  On any given shift, there was at least two teams watching the security monitors for any sign of an inconsistency that might indicate either tampering with the ships functions, or some sort of weapon.  Because of the sheer amount of work being done, there were dozens of false alarms over those last few days of preparation.  The Head of Security kept track of these little incidences and always made a point to reassure his monitoring teams that too much caution was better than too little, and to praise the responding teams for maintaining good response times in the face of so many false alarms.

 

Blair Sandburg would have liked to have spent all of his time in the last days before the mission working with his Sentinel. Unfortunately, the scientist had assured Simon Banks that both he and Ellison would be capable of continuing in their roles as ship’s officers, and that meant that Blair was forced to spend a good deal of time focusing on his own department.  Luckily, the young scientist had always been blessed with an excess of energy, and in spite of his somewhat… scattered… work environment, had time management down to a fine art form.  The young man spent the last few days before the launch date getting as much as he could done in a regular shift, and then high tailing it down to the security section where he would spend several hours more working with Ellison.

 

Jim Ellison had made good on his promise to ensure that none of his people worked more than one shift at a time.  The only person that got away with it was James Ellison himself.  Jim would work the shift times that Blair was in his office with his people.  The sheer amount of physical work that had to be dealt with meant that Ellison was needed amongst the teams.  Blair wasn’t really overjoyed at the notion of his Sentinel working alone in the field before he was able to use his senses independently, but Ellison swore not to try to extend himself without his Guide present, and there was no mistaking the fact that the crew appreciated that their chief was so ready to get his hands dirty along with the rest of them.  

 

Blair’s arrival at the Security Office was the signal that the Security Chief and the Science Officer were finished for the day, and it was time for the Sentinel and the Guide to put in a shift.  The pair would retreat briefly to their rooms, where they would eat and discuss Blair’s ideas on how to go about developing Jim’s skills as a Sentinel, and how they should go about consolidating what they had learned during previous sessions.  When they emerged from their rooms after their brief break, they were both totally focused on their roles as Sentinel and Guide. 

 

In spite of being tired and tense, Jim was a model student during their training sessions.  Any number of times during those sessions, Blair would sense Jim becoming frustrated or sullen, but instead of becoming snappy, or fighting his Guide, the Sentinel would simply grit his teeth and work all the harder.  Blair knew that it was his partner’s desire to protect the ship and the crew from their unknown enemy that prompted his unnatural patience and open-mindedness, rather than a desire to please his Guide, but Blair’s pride in the older man was in no way diminished by this.  They learned a lot during those sessions.  So much so, that Blair had a hard time keeping it all recorded in the very little time they had that was not taken up with eating, sleeping or working.  In spite of their progress, Sandburg couldn’t help but feel that they were still only scratching the surface.  He knew that promising Simon that the Sentinel would be on line by their launch date had been an act of supreme arrogance on his part.  He was ashamed of that, now, but even worse was the knowledge that he was more than willing to lie outright to the Captain about their progress if Banks pushed him into a corner and demanded to know if they were ready for the mission.  He would do whatever it took to protect his bond mate.  James Ellison might protect the ship, but Blair Sandburg protected James Ellison.  To the empath it was as simple as that.

 

Unfortunately, it was becoming rapidly obvious that there was a great deal that James Ellison required protecting from.  A sudden, loud noise nearby, when Jim was working on his hearing, could produce a sensory spike that left a pounding headache in its wake.  Some lubricating compound smeared on the edge of the torpedo tubes caused a spectacular rash all up one of the Sentinel’s arms when he accidentally put his hand in it.  Walking into the science department while Serena had been in the midst of testing some of the equipment had left the man weak and dizzy for almost a quarter of an hour, because he hadn’t been ready for the assault on his olfactory sense caused by the chemical solution that she had been using.  Ellison complained that for every advantage that his senses gave him, there seemed to be a disadvantage that was worse.  Blair acknowledged that this was a problem, but maintained that the name of the game was control. Jim was still far too unsure of his gift to possess much in the way of control.  Blair was certain that once Jim was more secure in what he could do, and was able to use his basic skills without having to think about it, many of the early disadvantages that he was experiencing would take care of themselves.  Jim wasn’t so sure of that, but Blair had reasonably pointed out to the Sentinel that it was his own lack of certainty that was the biggest obstacle in the path toward gaining the control that he desired, and Ellison had shut up.

 

On top of the stress of keeping Ellison’s wayward senses from actually harming the big security chief, Blair also had the immense pressure on his shoulders of keeping anyone from noticing that there was something significant going on with the ex-Ranger.  He knew that they had to keep the secret of Jim Ellison’s Sentinel abilities for as long as possible, but it was proving a great deal more difficult than he had originally thought it would.  He knew that that shouldn’t surprise him.  Hell, if he’d thought about it logically for half a moment way back in the beginning, he would have realized that it would prove damned-near impossible to keep the secret.  After all, the security section of the Raptor was made up almost exclusively of ex-Intelligence operatives, and at some stage or another, Jim Ellison had come into contact with any number of them.  Ultimately, Blair should have realized that Jim’s profound personality shift was going to cause some speculation.  After all, a hard-assed, lock-jawed, Federation-trained killer, who possessed the social instincts and skills of the a great white shark, didn’t suddenly adopt a scientist, become almost physically inseparable from him and then engage in both (God help us!) conversations, and public acts of patience without raising a few eyebrows.

 

Blair knew that he personally was the subject of a great deal of debate and curiosity.  That in and of itself didn’t overly worry him.  He’d always been something of an outsider, and the sad truth was that it was inevitably easier to make an ‘outsider’ the object of gossip and scorn than it was to do the same thing to an ‘insider’.  What worried Blair was that a good portion of the Security sector’s personnel had been in the business of ‘ferreting’ out secrets in the not-too-distant past.  Blair knew that if anyone got curious enough, it wouldn’t be too hard to find out that Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg had never even set eyes on each other before they came to this ship.  Their sudden and instant inability to be separated might prove too much of a puzzle for someone to let go off.   In Blair’s mind the link between Jim Ellison’s ‘symptoms’ of Post Traumatic Stress from just after his rescue, and the favorite obsession of Doctor Blair Sandburg, from before he became Dr Sandburg, was a very short jump from there.  Realistically, the empath knew that the security staff as a whole were far too busy to worry about following up on the odd behavior of their C.O., but that didn’t stop Blair from worrying about it.

 

Of course, the young Guide’s greatest source of worry remained the ship’s Medical Officer.  Dr Tina Baccus might not have understood everything she saw on the day that Jim and Blair bonded, but she definitely saw enough to cause them problems.  Blair knew that the doctor truly believed that Jim Ellison was a danger to himself and others, and that Blair Sandburg had some fairly major issues of his own.  The empath knew that she wanted to report them to her superiors in Starfleet Medicine, and he also knew that if she did so, he and his Sentinel would never be allowed to continue in their posts.  If they were removed from their posts, then they lost their only chance at escaping from Starfleet Intelligence’s clutches for a long enough period of time for Jim to gain control.  They’d be toast if they were dragged off for a compulsory psych review.  Blair kept expecting to be summoned back to headquarters in San Francisco to report to the medical board, but the call never came.  Baccus continued to alternate between totally ignoring them, and treating them with icy civility when the option of ignoring them wasn’t open to her, but she did not report them.  The only thing that Blair could think of that might account for this was that Captain Banks had threatened the woman with something when he had originally told her to back off and leave Sandburg and Ellison alone.  While Blair didn’t approve of using strong-arm tactics with one’s staff, he was realistic enough to realize that it was the only type of tactic that was likely to work with someone as arrogant and self-righteous as Baccus, and selfish enough to simply be grateful for anything that took pressure off of himself and his Sentinel.  The young Guide was determined to show his gratitude to his commanding officer for the support that the man had shown them, and it seemed to Blair that the best way for him to do that was to make sure that the Captain had the best science and security teams in Starfleet.  If that meant even more work for the young man, then so be it.  He hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said that he was used to getting by on a minimal amount of sleep.

 

It was all of these things that set the pattern for Blair’s last few days in Earth Space.  He worked almost constantly, slept briefly, ate more regularly than he would have normally managed to because a certain over-protective Sentinel threw a hissy fit if he skipped a meal, and worked his empathy skills more than he had since childhood.  He didn’t really have much choice, what with having to maintain his barriers whenever he and Ellison were apart, and then consciously working on making both himself and his Sentinel ‘uninteresting’ whenever they were working on Jim’s skills around the ship, but it still left him far more tired and ‘headachy’ than he would usually be at the end of a day.  Because there was so little time outside of their work for either of them, they had just taken to sharing a sleeping platform all of the time.  By sleeping together, they could maintain their bonding, even in sleep, and it cut down the time they needed to take to ‘recharge’ their batteries during their waking hours. 

 

On top of all this, Blair was intensely aware of the fact that his instincts were screaming that, as a newly empathically-bonded pair, they should be spending a lot more time alone together, becoming comfortable within their bond.  Blair was pretty sure that Ellison’s instincts were telling him the same thing, if the older man’s reluctance to allow his Guide to put distance between them by get up in the morning was anything to go by, so the empath tried to find ways of being extra attentive and patient with the older man.  He allowed the older man to fuss over how much his Guide was eating, and to constantly check to see if his Guide was comfortable and well.  He put up with mild medications (which he would normally never take as a Naturalist) being forced on him to deal with his empathy induced headaches. 

 

He even put up with Jim practically hovering over him when anyone he perceived as being a potential threat came anywhere near the young Guide, and making it very plain that Blair Sandburg was off limits for any of the practical jokes that that were almost mandatory amongst crew-members of a new ship.  Actually, that last one was rather nice for someone who’d always been considered an oddity wherever he went, and who always seemed to strike the perpetrators of such jokes as a natural victim for them.  Still, it really wouldn’t do for his shipmates to think that he needed protecting.  After all, he wouldn’t have risen so far through the ranks of Starfleet so quickly if he were helpless. 

 

All in all, Blair really couldn’t wait until they were on their way to the Neutral Zone, and things began to settle down.  The sooner things became more comfortable to the stressed-out Sentinel, the sooner the Guide could begin weaning him off all of those over-protective behaviors that their difficult beginnings as a bonded pair seemed to have brought out in the older man.

 

The sheer amount that needed doing made the time go very quickly, and it seemed to Blair that they had barely resolved on a strategy for dealing with those last few days, before those last few days were suddenly gone.  As he crawled onto the sleeping platform in Ellison’s room for his last sleep cycle before the ship’s launch from stardock, the young man found a million things flashing through his head, and he did not feel even the slightest bit drowsy, in spite of his exhaustion and his headache.  He wondered whether they had managed to find all of the surprises that the saboteurs had left for them.  He wondered how the ship making the jump into warp speed was going to effect his Sentinel.  He wondered why Captain Banks had made no effort to organize a meeting with himself and Ellison over their ability to continue as ship’s officer’s.  Their week was, after all, up.  Was it that he was too busy, and was going to spring something on them tomorrow before the launch, or was it Simon’s way of saying that he trusted them? 

 

What were they going to face when they got into the Neutral Zone?  How long would they be able to keep the secret of Jim’s abilities, before Intelligence found out?  What would happen when they did?  Was he going to be able to fulfill his role as teacher and protector of the ship’s Guardian?  Was he capable of fulfilling his role as Science Officer, as well as his role as the Guide?

 

Blair’s thoughts were spinning out of control, when a warm weight descended onto the sleeping platform behind him.  A strong arm encircled him, and the empath was suddenly flooded with affection and amusement as the bond kicked into high gear in response to the physical contact between them.

 

“You’re thinking,” Ellison’s deep voice vibrated along the skin at the back of his neck.  “That can’t be good.”

 

Blair gave a small huff of laughter, and swung his elbow back at the body behind him half-heartedly.  “Smart-ass,” he growled, and was rewarded with an affectionate chuckle against his hair.

 

“Go to sleep, Blair.” The Sentinel ordered gently as he himself sought a comfortable position.

 

Sleep?” Blair demanded incredulously.  “Tomorrow’s our launch date!  Tomorrow’s our deadline with Simon!  Who can sleep?”

 

We can.” Ellison rumbled.  “Close your eyes, kid.  It’s easy.”

 

“Easy?” Blair blinked in surprise.  “Easy?  Nothing about looking down the barrel of tomorrow is easy!”  Blair flipped himself over so that he was facing his Sentinel, and raised himself up on one elbow to squint at the larger man through the darkness.  “And why are you directing me to chill out, Mr. poster-child for uptight, anal-retentive, control-fiend stress-puppies everywhere?  Someone slip you some ‘mellow’ pills when I wasn’t looking, big guy?”

 

Jim summoned up a sigh that was practically dripping with long-sufferance.  “No, Chief.  No one’s been slipping me ‘mellow’ pills.  This isn’t drugs talking, it’s experience.”

 

“Wha’ do ya mean?” Blair asked curiously.

 

“Kid, can you think of anything else that we could have done to ensure the safety of this ship?” Ellison asked quietly

 

“Well…” Blair thought hard for a moment.  “No… not off-hand.  I mean, we’ve been working our asses off…”

 

“Right.”  Jim cut him off firmly.  “Neither can I.  There comes a point when you just have to say, ‘I’ve done all I can do to prepare,’ and let it go.  Because if life has taught me one thing, it’s that no matter how hard you prepare, no matter how carefully you work out all of the angles and try to take every, single contingency into consideration, something you hadn’t counted on will happen, and you’ll end up playing catch-up anyway.  If that happens, you just have to deal with it the best you can, and it’s a lot easier to deal with an emergency when you are well-rested and alert, than it is when you’re tired, distracted and frustrated.”

 

“Oh.” Blair murmured thoughtfully.  “I can see that.”

 

“Chief, we’ve done everything we can.  If something bad happens from here, we’re just going to have to deal with it as best we can, and hope that our best is enough.”  Jim’s voice trailed off, and although the room had been darkened for their sleep cycle, Blair was suddenly hit with a wave of something dark through the bond.  Something like a shadow.  Remembered pain. 

 

“It will be, Jim.” Blair blurted, his voice surprisingly fierce.  “It’ll be enough.  We’ll make it be enough.”   The young empath was taken by an almost overwhelming need to comfort then, and lowered himself back onto the sleeping platform so that he could bring himself into physical contact with his Sentinel as fully as he could.  He wrapped his arm around his bond-mate’s back and pressed his face into the larger man’s chest, sending out his faith and trust in his partner.  He felt shudders wrack the older man, and he made a soft comforting sound in response.  After a moment, Blair felt his partner’s large hand come up and begin gently massaging his Guides neck, and the body he was holding began to relax.

 

“We can only hope, kid.” Jim said quietly, “Now. Go. To. Sleep”

 

“ ‘Kay, Jim.” Blair responded agreeably.  He forced himself to relax and open himself to the bond.  He knew only too well that he was far too wound up to sleep tonight, but he needed to help his Sentinel relax.  He would bond with his Sentinel, and when the bigger man went to sleep, he could get back to his worrying in peace.  He felt his bond-mate relax into his presence.  He felt the bigger man snuffle at his hair for a moment, and felt a big hand ghost across his face, and down his arm as the Sentinel went through his nightly routine of using his senses to check on the condition of his Guide.  Blair smiled to himself.  He doubted that Ellison was even conscious of the fact that he did that.  A moment later, he felt Jim relax profoundly, as he sunk into his Guide’s mind, and he allowed his senses to dull themselves to the level of Blair’s very ordinary senses.  Blair actually felt it as the darkness truly became dark to Jim.  With the lowering of the input that he was receiving, Jim was finally able to stand down from being ‘on duty’ and allow sleep to take him.  Blair felt his Sentinel’s relaxed contentment feeding back at him through the bond. The younger man deliberately continued to focus on his trust in the Sentinel, and his deep affection for the man that possessed the senses, so that Jim would continue to pick up nothing but peace through the bond until he had achieved a deep enough state of sleep, where Blair could think about his worries without disturbing his partner.

 

Blair’s last conscious thought was that, all worries aside, it really was nice to be warm.

 


 

Jim awoke suddenly, as he was wont to do, and automatically checked his immediate environment to make sure that everything was as it should be.  The first thing that he acknowledged and then dismissed was his own general feelings of crappiness.  Blair had explained that to him.  He had gone too long without real sleep.  Since his bonding, he had been able to sleep again, but his body still needed more than he could give it.  Blair had assured him that, with time, he would once again be able to feel refreshed after a night’s sleep, but for the meantime, he was just going to have to deal with feeling lousy in the mornings.

 

Once his own general state had been catalogued and dismissed, his senses automatically latched onto his Guide.  The slow, even beat of his heart, the deep, peaceful breaths and the stillness of the warm body pressed against his side told the Sentinel that his bond-mate was still asleep.  That surprised the older man somewhat.  Every other morning since their bonding, Blair had already been up and about by the time he dragged himself back to consciousness.  For a long moment, Jim allowed his senses to drench themselves in his Guide, but then reluctantly dragged them away to focus on the area around them both.  It always amazed him how easily control came when he was in physical contact with the younger man.  When he tried this without his Guide’s grounding touch, it always became a struggle to simply keep his senses from spinning out of control, and as a result he always managed to net far less information than he got when he had his Guide with him.

 

When Ellison had established that everything was as it should be, his senses returned to latch onto the empath lying next to him.  Jim carefully raised himself up onto his elbow, so that he could add sight to the information that his ears, nose and skin were giving him about the younger man.  The room was still darkened in accordance to the fact that this was their sleep period, but there was still more than enough light for Sentinel sight.  The empath was lying on his side, with his back to the older man.  Ellison smiled as he took in the way the scientist’s hands were curled up under his chin.  He looked remarkably child-like when he slept, Ellison noted, and this was the first time that he had ever seen his Guide completely relaxed and still.  Ellison sat up carefully, and tenderly petted some wayward curls back from his Guide’s face.  Blair curled his nose up and made an unhappy sound, before wriggling back a little so that he was pressed more closely against his Sentinel’s leg, but at no point did he wake up.

 

‘The little goober must have really wore himself out with that little attack of the nerves he had last night,’ Ellison thought fondly.  Jim thought back to the night before, when he’d heard Blair’s heartbeat begin to accelerate.  By the time he’d crawled onto the sleeping platform with his Guide, the younger man had been worrying at his lower lip with his teeth, tapping out staccato rhythm against the skin of his own arms and trying to stare a hole through the wall.  It had actually been rather sweet and endearing, really.  Blair was so ‘in control’ the whole time, that it had almost been a relief to see that he did in fact, get nervous, just like other people.

 

Simon would laugh about that.  He’d say that the kid was a bundle of nerves, with the way that he talked at a mile a minute, and never, ever seemed to stop moving.  Jim knew the truth though.  The noise and the perpetual motion thing were just camouflage.  Underneath all of that, this kid was a rock.  Totally unflappable.  Jim smiled down at the sleeping man and gently tousled his curls again.  The kid gets attacked by an out of control ex-Ranger, and simply handles it, while everyone around him panics.  The Captain of the ship gives him a one week deadline to get himself and the out-of-control Ranger back in control, while also handling all of the duties that both he and said Ranger were supposed to have been handling before their little jaunt into the twilight zone, and just shrugs and says ‘Not a problem’.  The Ex-Ranger, whose ass he had just saved, starts pushing him around, and the kid, knowing full well that the man could snap him like a twig, simply pushes back.  He handles absolutely everything that everyone throws at him, and, under the noise and the movement, never breaks a sweat.

 

Jim wondered if anyone else realized just how much courage was housed in the deceptively small and slight body.  He doubted it.  Hell, he doubted that even Sandburg himself realized how truly brave he was.  That was all right though, Jim mused.  His Captain and colleagues were intelligent and observant people.  In time, they’d work it out for themselves.  And while they were working out just how special Sandburg was, he could work on convincing his Guide that while it was Jim Ellison that possessed the Sentinel Senses, it was Blair Sandburg that was truly the special one.  Because without Blair, Jim would just be dead, or wishing he was.

 

Jim smothered the urge to sigh, and glanced at the chronometer on his wrist.  The Security Chief frowned irritably.  They were going to have to get going if they were going to be ready on time.

 

“Computer,” Ellison said in a clear voice, “lights to full.”  Instantly the room’s lighting came up to its normal level.  Beside him, Blair groaned and rolled onto his stomach, trying vainly to hide his face against the soft surface of the sleeping platform.  Ellison smiled again, and gently caught hold of the younger man’s shoulder to give him a shake.  “C’mon Kid,” he chuckled.  “Time to rise and shine.”

 

“Vvvckorvv.” An unhappy voice growled at him from under the arms the younger man was using to hide behind. 

 

“Sorry, kid.” Ellison smiled. “But we’ve got to move.”

 

There was silence for a moment, before the empath’s back heaved up in a deep, miserable sigh.  “Orrkee” the muffled voice agreed tragically.  Ellison shook his head, before very deliberately envisioning the dials that his Guide had taught him about and setting them at the ‘normal’ levels that he and Blair had established together.

 

“I’m getting up now.” The older man said as way of warning his partner that he was about to break contact.

 

“Hoelon.” The muffled voice responded quickly, before the younger man turned himself over and sat up with a groan.  Ellison waited patiently while the younger man closed his eyes and became very still.  After a moment, the scientist nodded curtly.  “Ready.” He said simply.  Ellison nodded, and then climbed off the platform.

 

As always, the moment that he broke contact with the younger man, the ‘dials’ that controlled his senses tried to spin out of control.  And as usual, Jim had to remain perfectly still for a long moment as he forced them to remain where he had set them through sheer force of will.  Blair had assured him that this would get easier in time, but for the present, it was always difficult, and always damned annoying.

 

Once the Sentinel had everything under control, he moved to his quarter’s small ‘bathroom’ to begin his morning ablutions.  By the time he came out, dressed in his uniform and ready to start his shift, Blair had already retreated to his own quarters to make his own preparations for the day ahead.  The Sentinel briefly and carefully extended his senses to make sure that all was well with his Guide, and then moved to the replicator unit to acquire some breakfast for them both.

 

Ten minutes later and Jim was sitting across from a rather disgruntled looking young Guide.  Blair was glaring at the older man’s plate, and Jim resigned himself to yet another lecture on his eating habits.  It had almost, he mused with a sigh, become part of their morning ritual.  Ellison ate almost belligerently, waiting for the grilling to begin.  To his surprise, it didn’t.

 

Ellison eyed the younger man suspiciously as he continued to simply sit there and sip at his usual morning algae concoction.  Jim really wanted to just enjoy his bacon and eggs, but the pressure of his Guide’s silence became all far too much.  He knew that he should just eat and be grateful that the scientist wasn’t going to interrupt him for once, but a silent Blair was unnatural, and Jim found that it was actually harder to take the young man’s lack of talking, than it was to just argue with him.

 

“Well?” Ellison growled, already kicking himself for starting this.

 

“Well, what.” Blair asked coolly.

 

“None of the usual morning digs at my selection of breakfast food today?” Ellison demanded darkly.

 

“Oh no.” Blair waved a hand in cool dismissal, “You already know what I think of your eating habits, so why bother?  I mean, I’d hate to interrupt your enjoyment of the ‘triple-bypass special’ there.”

 

“Chief, we’ve been through this.” Ellison groaned.  “The fats are removed during the replication process.”

 

“Hmmff.” Blair snorted.  “I just don’t see why you can’t do something positive for your body, and just try an algae shake.  They’re very good for you.  They clean out your system.”

 

“Sandburg,” Ellison growled defiantly as he forked the last of his bacon into his mouth, “as bad as that shit smells from this side of the table, I can guarantee you that my system would most certainly get a cleaning if I made the mistake of putting it anywhere near my mouth.  And as you would have been the one to badger me into it, you would be cleaning up the mess.”

 

“Whatever.” The younger man snorted dismissively, before standing up and taking his glass and Ellison’s plate back the replicator, and programming the machine to break the unwanted dishes and utensils back down to their atomic form and recycling it.  When the scientist returned to the table, his face was unreadable.  “For the time being, I guess that we can put nutritional discussions aside.” The empath said neutrally. “What’s the plan for the day?”

 

Ellison looked at his Guide carefully then, and finally noted the slightly elevated heartbeat, and the vaguely irregular breathing.  Suddenly, the younger man’s unwillingness to engage in his usual morning chatter became very clear to the Security Chief.  Blair was nervous about the day ahead and didn’t want his Sentinel to know.  Ellison focused on the bond for a moment, and realized that the younger man was very carefully transmitting nothing but a bland interest.  Jim fought down the urge to smile.  The boy might be better at working within the bond than his partner was, but the Sentinel had his own ways of getting information.

 

“Well, Kid.” Ellison said easily as he stood up and moved to stand directly in front of the empath, “We’ve got a few hours to kill before the launch deadline.  I though that we could go to our respective departments and do a last minute check to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything, and get all of the last minute details sorted out.  After that, I thought that we might meet up at one of our offices and head up to the bridge together to take our posts for the ‘big launch’.”

 

“Oh,” Blair frowned, then nodded.  “Okay.  We can do that.  I’ll just check to make sure everything’s done in my department, then I’ll come over to Security.”

 

“Sounds good, Chief.” Ellison said agreeably, as he watched the younger man carefully.  Blair nodded absently and began to step backward toward the door, but the Sentinel reached out and caught him before he could take more than half a step away.  The scientist turned his surprised gaze upward, and Jim carefully caught hold of both of his partner’s arms and held him gently at arms length.  “There’s one thing that we’re not going to do though, Sandburg.”

 

“Oh?” Blair questioned cautiously, his eyes flickering between his Sentinel’s face, and the restraining hold that the older man had on his arms.

 

“Yeah.” Jim confirmed, giving his captive a little shake to get the empath to look into his face again.  “The one thing we’re not going to do is spend all morning trying to second guess ourselves.  I’d like to be able to at least get started on this mission without either one of us having an ulcer.” Blair blinked in surprise at that and Jim gave his startled partner a gentle smile.  “We discussed this last night, Chief, and I meant what I said.  We’ve done everything humanly possible to protect this ship.  From here on out, all we can do is try to be ready for anything that happens that we couldn’t have anticipated.”  Ellison carefully released his grip on the younger man’s arms.  He slid his hands up to his partner’s shoulders and squeezed them reassuringly.  “What ever happens from this point on, we’ll deal, kid.  Remember what you said to me last night?  We’ll make it be enough.  Together, we’ll make it be enough.”

 

Blair stood staring at him for a long minute, before his own hand came up, and came to rest, rather tentatively, on the Sentinel’s chest, over his heart.  Ellison felt the warmth of that hand through his uniform.  Almost instinctively, the older man ‘dialed’ his senses up to saturate them in the living presence of his Guide.  He could literally feel the heartbeat that echoed in his ears, in the barely perceptible throbbing he could perceive through the tips of the fingers that lay over his heart.  He breathed the musky, honey-cinnamon scent of his Guide into his lungs and silently catalogued the myriad of colors that he could see within the younger man’s eyes.  His senses were so caught up in his partner, that when the empath breathed his return vow to the older man’s words, it registered almost as a shout to the Sentinel.

 

“Together.” Blair whispered solemnly. 

 

For a long moment, the pair stood without speaking, simply soaking in the reassurance of each other’s physical presence, as well as the comfort of their bond.  Oaths and wishes aside, there could be no way of knowing what might happen today, so they each took what they could of the other into themselves, almost as a talisman against all of the things that might go wrong over the next few hours.

 

After a moment, though, Ellison felt a trickle of amusement through the bond, and noticed that the corners of his partner’s mouth were twitching.  Jim raised his eyebrows questioningly, and the empath ducked his head in wry embarrassment. 

 

“So…” Blair muttered as he let his had fall away from the taller man’s chest, “What gave me away?” he asked sheepishly.  “I was really trying to make sure that you didn’t realize that I was, like, freaking out over here.”

 

“Didn’t feel a thing through the bond,” Ellison assured his young partner as he released the empath’s shoulders, and gave him a gentle cuff on the head, “but your pulse doing the ‘William Tell Overture’ was a dead give away.”

 

Sandburg groaned as Jim slung an arm around his shoulders and began leading him toward the door.  “I can’t believe that I was betrayed by my own autonomic reactions, man!” Blair growled, then suddenly grinned in one of his lightning fast mood changes.  “But, hey!  I can do something about that!” he crowed, “I’ve been meditating since I was, like, old enough to understand the concept of sitting still.  With a little bit of work, I could learn to control my autonomic responses!”

 

“Sounds good, Chief.” Ellison smirked as the door to their rooms opened automatically for them and they made their way out into Ellison’s office.  “And while you do that, I’ll work on getting a grip on the bond.  So by the time you have your autonomic responses all worked out, I’ll be able to read you through the bond, and I’ll still know what you’re thinking.”

 

“Oh.” Blair frowned.  “Well, then, that’s not going to work, is it?” he muttered unhappily.

 

“Nope.”  Ellison grinned smugly.  “You might as well just get used to the idea that I’m always going to know what’s going on with you.”  He reached out as they approached the far side of his office, hit the ‘unlock/open’ pad and gently pushed the younger man out into the hallway.  “I’ll see you in about three hours, Kid.” he smirked, and then quickly closed the door, just as his partner opened his mouth to deliver what was undoubtedly going to be a smart-assed come-back. 

 

There was silence for a moment, before the Security Chief heard a muffled, “You suck Ellison,” from the other side of the door.  Jim chuckled as he tracked the younger man moving away down the corridor, continuing to provide a monologue on his Sentinel’s many and varied personality flaws as he went.  Ellison waited until he heard his Guide safely enter the turbo lift before heading toward the door on the opposite side of the room that connected his office with the main security area. 

 

Even as he composed the list of questions that he needed to ask Romonov about what had been happening while he slept, Ellison was surprised to note a spark of optimism within himself.  After all of the lousy miserable unforeseen things that had gone wrong in his life, he tended to view himself as being devoid of hope.  Perhaps, he mused as he entered the main security area, just perhaps, with Blair there to guide him, his best would indeed finally be good enough.

 


 

For the first time since first taking command of the Raptor, Simon Banks came directly to the bridge upon beginning his shift.  Up until now it had been pointless for him to do so.  They were, after all, stuck in space dock.  With the hundreds of details that had requires his attention elsewhere, he had only ever set foot on the bridge when he had absolutely had to.  Today was different though.  Today the Raptor would finally get to test her wings.  And from this day until whenever he passed command of the vessel on to someone else, this room would be the centre of his personal universe.

 

As the turbo lift doors opened, Banks allowed himself a moment to look around.  The Raptor was a new class of ship, and as such, boasted the most up-to-date technology available.  That in itself was a double-edged sword.  The new equipment was certainly spectacular, but as with all new technology, there seemed to be one hell of a lot that could go wrong with it.  Their sensors might be the newest, most sensitive models available, but if they weren’t working, then the ship was still blind.  Banks would have actually been more comfortable with older model equipment.  Older stuff had been widely seen.  Most any engineer that had served on a starship was going to have a basic understanding of what could go wrong with the standard equipment and how to fix it.  New stuff required specialized knowledge, and while the technicians that had that knowledge were available on the ship, space was a dangerous place.  All it would need would be to have some incident cause fatalities, and Banks could conceivably be faced with the possibility of having no one able to repair any damage that the ship may have sustained.  Banks wasn’t happy about that, but it was far too late to do anything about it, so he accepted it and moved on.

 

The bridge certainly looked impressive enough.  It was a fairly large room, all on one level, rather than the split-level layout that was usually employed.  The lines of the room were all sweeping, graceful curves, rather than the usual hard edges.  There was enough room to be able to move comfortably between the stations, even when the bridge was fully manned.  The Captains chair was located in the centre of the room, and it was on an elevated platform, so that all he had to do was swivel around and he could see what was happening at any of the bridge’s workstations.  Banks particularly approved of that feature.  It had always been one of his personal ‘bug bears’ about the old bridge design, that he could never see what was happening above him properly.  On this bridge, that would never be a problem.

 

In Banks’ eyes though, the room’s most impressive feature was the slanted wall at the front to the room.  The entire damned thing was a view screen.  At the moment, the view screen was set to ‘window’ mode, revealing what was happening directly in front of the ship.  Banks watched as a small maintenance pod skimmed toward, and then over, the outside monitors, momentarily obscuring their view of space dock.  In the centre of the enormous wall screen, Banks could see the thin silvery outline of a rectangle.  At the moment, the inside of that rectangle simply formed part of the ‘window’ that the view screen mimicked. In actuality, that silver skeleton marked a second view screen.  The smaller screen could be used for either video communications, or to allow the bridge crew to see more than one outside image at a time.  Banks approved of that feature as well.  It was nice to know that he could now suffer through communicating with either Starfleet Command, or anyone else that they encountered without feeling like he was being completely blinded to what was happening outside.  Banks knew that it was an illogical feeling, but he was a very visual man.  He liked to be able to see what was going on around him.

 

Banks drew a deep breath, and then stepped out to formally take back the con.

 

The Captain’s chair was empty, but a quick glance around reveled that Commander Connor was perched on the edge of the tactical console, involved in a quiet discussion with the security officer that was manning that station.  As he looked over at her, the woman’s head snapped up, and her eyes focused on him.  She broke eye contact just long enough to make a ‘hold on a minute’ gesture to the Centuarian she’d been talking to, then quickly made her way over to him.

 

“Morning, Captain.” The woman said by way of greeting as she approached him.  Banks smiled.  ‘Day’ and ‘night’ were not really relevant concepts on a starship, but it was amazing how beings of all species clung to them.

 

“Good morning, Commander.” He nodded in reply.  “Anything interesting happen while I was asleep?”

 

“No, sir.” Connor shook her head, then glanced at him and grinned in wry amusement.  “Nothing unexpected anyway.  Taggart reported in a few minutes ago, though.  Asked me to tell you that miracles do sometimes happen.  It looks like we’re actually going to be ready to launch at the appropriate time.”

 

Banks nodded and then grinned slightly himself.  “Alleluia.” He muttered sardonically.  Connor gave a small snort of amusement, than abruptly became the cool professional again. 

 

“I’ve left a data pad on your chair sir.” She said formally.  “I did get several reminders during the night of things that you still need to sign off on.  I’ve called up the forms and put them on the pad for you.  You can sort through them and get Lieutenant Commander Curtis to send them off when ever you’re ready.”

 

Banks glanced over at where the tall, English ex-spy was sitting at his station.  The young man had his ear-piece in, and if the look on his face was anything to go by, he was monitoring something extremely interesting.  Banks shot his second in command a questioning look, but the young woman just shrugged.

 

“Oh, who knows.” She grimaced.  “Technically, as communications officer, there isn’t really much for him to be doing at the moment except make sure the equipment’s all working, and make sure any calls from the dock and command get through to their destination.  Every time I’ve been on the bridge at the same time as he’s been here though, he’s like that.  I suspect that our communications officer might be having a little bit of trouble letting go of his past profession.”

 

Banks shook his head and glared at the Englishman for a moment, then sighed.  “Actually, as long as he’s on our side, I don’t think I care.” He snorted. “Does Ellison know about his ‘extra-curricular’ activities?”

 

“Err, yes sir.” Connor raised an eyebrow.  “Mr Curtis and Mr. Ellison have had some very quiet, and very intense discussions here over the last few nights.”

 

“Wonderful.” Banks sighed, but then dismissed the matter from his mind.  He might not know Curtis that well, but if Ellison were involved, it would be all right.  Jim was a stubborn, pig-headed man, but he was Simon Banks’ friend, and he respected the chain of command.  If he came across some information that the Captain needed to know about, he would have let Banks know.  He looked across at his First Officer and gave a resigned smile.  “Thank you, Commander.” He said by way of dismissal.  The woman nodded, then returned to the conversation that he’d interrupted with his arrival.

 

Simon quickly stepped up onto the platform that his chair was located on, picked up the data pad that Connor had left him, and sat down.  He made himself as comfortable as possible in the command chair and then looked around the bridge from this new angle.  The tall man decided that he definitely approved of the new bridge layout.  From here he could survey absolutely everything that was happening. 

 

In front of him, he could see his chief navigator flicking through star charts as he reaffirmed the coordinates that had already been set into the computer as their target for the ship’s first warp jump.  Banks had spoken to Lieutenant Richards on several occasions now.  At first he had been put off by the man’s seemingly casual and ‘laid back’ attitude.  The Captain prided himself on being an excellent judge of people though, and it hadn’t taken long for him to realize that behind the rangy, red-headed man’s rough accent and ready smile, there lurked an almost frightening intellect.  The man was obviously good at what he did, and in some ways, it was probably just as well that there was someone on the bridge that was capable of laughing at themselves, because the rest of his senior bridge-crew were really rather… intense.

 

The Senior Helmsman was a perfect example of this.  Banks could see the young man looking through a report from engineering about some last minute modifications that they had had to make.  Lieutenant Commander Chris Keel was a slender young man of just above average height.  His records showed that he was a top pilot, and the subtle arrogance of the way he walked and carried himself showed that he knew exactly how good he was.  The young man’s records also showed that he had a history of taking insane risks, dating back to a border skirmish between the starship he had been assigned to and the Romulans.  The star ship had taken heavy damage, and while Keel had come through the encounter unscathed, his wife, who was one of the ship’s engineers, had been killed.  It seemed as though Mr. Keel had lost the plot somewhat after that.  The young man’s record had become littered with reprimands for not following procedure and placing himself at risk.  He had left the regular service and joined the covert operations teams, but this had apparently just made his tendency to take risks even worse.

 

Ordinarily, Banks would have never taken such an officer on board.  The situation was going to be dangerous enough without having a Senior Helmsman with a death wish.  However, the young man had taken leave some eighteen months earlier, and when Banks had read his application, he had called the young man in to talk to him about it.  Banks didn’t know what he had done with his leave, but it seemed to have given the man some much-needed peace.  Keel’s eyes were still perpetually intense, and his fuse was a little short for Banks’ liking, but he was no longer seeking his own death.  Simon wasn’t really sure of what it was about the young American that told him this, but he was very sure that he was right about it.  He never would have had him on the ship if he weren’t.

 

Behind him, Sam Curtis continued to listen to his head set with a single-minded intensity that bordered on frightening.  Banks found his communications officer to be the most focused individual that he had ever met.  He was absolutely impossible to read, unless he chose to be read.  It was a little disconcerting, but it made a lot of sense if Banks’ supposition that the man was an ex-spy was correct.  As a spy, self-control would have been a way of life to the young man.  In some ways it was comforting to know that Ellison had someone with Curtis’ background assisting him in ferreting out problems before they could become problems.  Banks just hoped that Curtis didn’t get so caught up in what he was doing that he forgot that he had an official job to do, too.

 

At the moment, the science station was empty, still awaiting the ship’s science officer.  Sandburg was probably busy with Ellison at the moment, Banks decided.  The Captain smiled slightly as he thought about the animated young man who had somehow managed to get himself completely wound up in his security chief’s life.  The pair were probably wondering why they hadn’t been called in to formally answer the question of whether they were ready to take on this mission or not.  They’d probably be more that a little surprised when they found out that he had no intention of doing so.  He had to admit, he’d been initially skeptical that they could deal with something this…huge… and still do their own jobs.  They’d proven him wrong in the first two days though.  Ellison and Sandburg had already demonstrated that they were more than able to defend this ship and it’s crew.  Banks knew that there would undoubtedly be problems unique to the pair’s situation to deal with in the future, but the Captain needed no further confirmation of the fact that they could actually do their jobs, and do them well.

 

Behind him and to the left, Commander Connor was still involved in discussion with the security ensign who was filling in at the tactical console until Ellison arrived.  Further around at the engineering console, Taggart’s second in command was perusing something that her chief had sent through to her.  Taggart was a ‘hands-on’ engineering officer, preferring to work from the engine room, so that he could be on hand if something went wrong.  Banks had known from the beginning that he’d never get Taggart to work from the station on the bridge, but not for the first time, he wished that the engineer had pulled another 2IC.

 

Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari was decidedly not human.  Banks had no problem at all with this fact.  His problem lay with the engineer’s appearance.  ‘Blink’, as the humans she worked with had nicknamed her, was lucky to reach four and a half feet in height.  She had pale mauve skin, long, pointed ears, and long pink hair.  Her eyes were large and a slightly darker mauve, and there were delicate, deep mauve markings around her eyes.  In short, she looked like an eleven-year old, dressed up for Halloween.  Rationally, Simon knew that the Lieutenant Commander was merely a Torishii, that all of her kind looked that way, and that she was, in actuality, almost twice his age.  Every time he looked at her, though, his mind said ‘child’, and it was difficult to reconcile his impression of her with the responsibility that she carried on the ship.

 

On the far left, Lieutenant Torvok, a relatively young Vulcan was manning the computer technician’s console.  To the far right, the ship’s ‘councilor’ Dr Chang, was performing some last minute checks, while trying to keep an eye on her boss’s station as well.

 

All in all, everything looked far more peaceful than you would usually expect on the bridge of a ship about to make it’s maiden jump; particularly on a ship that had had the kind of problems that this one had experienced.  Banks knew that his people had to be nervous.  Hell, he was nervous.  Still, he couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride in them all for being able to maintain the sense that it was ‘business as usual’ on the ship.

 

If they all survived the jump today, they were going to make one hell of a crew.

 

Banks fought the urge to sigh as he forced himself to focus his attention on the data pad that Connor had left for him.  It was difficult to think about what lay ahead today, and not feel nervous.  Security had done an outstanding job, under extremely trying circumstances, but there was just so much that could go wrong.  And if someone really wanted this ship destroyed, and it’s crew dead, there where far too many ways in which to accomplish that goal.

 

Banks grimaced and resolutely pushed the thought away.  It would do no one any good for him to dwell on it.  What would be would be.  For now, all he could do was focus on making sure his ship was as ready as it could be.  With this thought in mind, he forced himself to focus exclusively on what was left to be done and soon lost himself in the work.

 

Over the next few hours, the atmosphere on the bridge gradually changed.  As last minute checks were completed, the information was sent through to the monitoring stations at Star Dock and the responses began to filter back that confirmed the findings of the ship’s officers.  The ‘Raptor’ was given the green light; all systems ‘go’.  As the official time of launch crept closer, the tension on the bridge gradually increased.  By the time the ship’s science and security officers finally showed up, Banks was ready to push the launch time forward, just to get it over with.

 

Banks turned to glare at the pair as they stepped off the turbo lift.  He had known that they both had other things that they wanted to do before launch this morning, but they could have managed a little better than fifteen minutes before launch.  That kind of tardiness in officers tended to filter down through the ranks.  Before he could say anything though, Ellison broke away from Sandburg and jogged over to the Captain’s chair.

 

“Nice of you to join us, Commander.” Banks turned on his most sardonic manner for the errant Security Chief.  Unfortunately, the tone that usually had those it was directed against almost dribbling in an effort to get out an apology, had absolutely zero effect on the Great Wall of Ellison.  The man simply looked at him with his most professional expression, and said, “My people have just completed a last sweep of the ship, sir.  My people found no evidence of tampering in any of the systems, but just to be sure, Dr Sandburg and I did a ‘special’ sweep of the ship, and we also found nothing to report.”  Ellison caught his Captain’s eyes, and the message the security chief was trying to send was clear.  He and Sandburg had been using that Sentinel thing, and if they couldn’t find something, the chances were good that there was nothing there to be found.  “We’re as safe as we can possibly be for launch.” Ellison finished firmly.

 

‘Oh.’ Banks thought absently, ‘That would explain the being late part.’

 

“Well, I’m pleased that you and Dr Sandburg were keeping busy while we were all waiting for you.” The Captain said gruffly, not quite ready to rescind his earlier attitude.

 

“We try to make a point of staying busy, sir.” Ellison responded almost lackadaisically, his eyes almost pointedly expressionless.  Simon glared at the apparently uncaring man, and mused that the problem with having a subordinate that had been your friend for years was that it was almost impossible to bluff them.  The Captain snorted, and then glanced over at where Sandburg was making an extremely conscientious effort to keep his ‘head down and his backside up’.

 

“What’s with the kid?” Banks asked in a graceless change of subject.

 

Ellison glanced over his shoulder and almost smiled.  “Oh.”  He drawled, “Sandburg’s trying to remain inconspicuous.  Kind of a lost cause, really.”

 

Banks snorted in amusement.  “Pray tell, why is Sandburg trying to remain ‘inconspicuous,’” he asked dryly.

 

Ellison gave his Captain a measuring look before answering.  “Well, sir, I believe that it could be because he’d rather not have a certain discussion with you right at the moment, and he thinks that if you don’t notice him, you won’t feel compelled to initiate said discussion.”

 

“Ah.” Banks responded sagely, then leaned toward his security officer and said in a stage whisper, “It’s probably just as well then that I’d already decided that the ‘discussion’ that he’s worried about is unnecessary.  I won’t tell him that, though.  I’d hate to say something to interrupt all of that industriousness.”

 

Banks watched in amusement as something like relief flashed across Ellison’s face before he could recompose his expressionless mask.  Banks had to give it to the man though.  He pulled himself together pretty damned quickly.  Ellison’s face was once again completely devoid of any emotion save for a mild amusement when he turned to glance at his overtly busy young partner.  “I can see what you mean, sir.  He’s also a lot quieter than normal like that.  I suppose that that’s a good thing, too.”

 

“It certainly is.” Banks agreed fervently, and then smiled.  “Attend your post, Commander.  Things are gonna get busy around here in a minute.”

 

“Very good, Sir.” Ellison nodded, and then moved quickly to relieve the young Centuarian that had been watching the tactical console while his commander was busy.  The Security Chief had barely managed to get himself located when Lieutenant Commander Curtis suddenly turned from his station and caught the Captain’s eye.

 

“Sir, we’ve just received word from space dock that they’re initiating the outer door sequences.” The Englishman said coolly, “They’ll be ready for us to depart space dock in five minutes.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Curtis.” Banks nodded.  ‘Show time.’ The Captain thought and took a moment to prepare himself mentally for this.  If all went to plan, then the Raptor would soon be making the first of many warp jumps.  If it didn’t, they’d all be dead in the next ten minutes.  ‘No pressure, here.’  Simon thought wryly, then straightened in his chair and hit his personal communicator. “Bridge to engine room,” he instructed the computer.  A moment later there was an answering trill.

 

“Taggart here, Captain.” The slightly tinny, disembodied voice responded.

 

“It’s ‘show time’, Joel.  Time to start bringing the warp engines up to full power.” Banks said briskly.

 

“Been ready for the order all morning.” The heavy set engineer assured him.

 

“Good.” Banks nodded. “How are we with the impulse engines?”

 

“Ready whenever you are.” Taggart responded calmly.

 

“Good to hear.” Banks smiled.  “Bridge out.”

 

Banks glanced around and found himself the absolute centre of attention on the bridge.  His people were more than ready for this.  He glanced over at the communications console again.  “Mr Curtis, please ask space dock to reconfirm that all maintenance equipment and personal have cleared the area.  We’ll be firing the impulse engines in exactly five minutes.”

 

“Aye, Sir.” Curtis nodded, then turned to his console.  There was silence for a long minute before Curtis straightened and turned back toward his Captain.  “Space dock confirms that the area has been cleared.  They’re ready whenever we are.”

 

“Good,” Banks nodded in satisfaction, then looked at his helmsman.  “Ready, Mr. Keel?”

 

“Whenever you give the word.” The young American grinned slightly, and Banks nodded at his answer.

 

“Computer, activate rear viewing sensors on main viewscreen.” Instantly, the image that had been displayed on the forward wall blinked and changed.  Suddenly, they were faced with the image of enormous doors slowly drawing back to reveal the velvety darkness of open Space.  The bridge crew watched in silence as the great doors swung open.  By the time they were fully opened, they could see a sliver of Earth at the extreme bottom right hand corner of the wall, and a number of other Starfleet vessels drifting around in closer orbit, but for the most part they were faced with only a patchwork of stars and darkness.  Banks was careful not to smirk as he realized that each and every member of his bridge crew were either sitting or standing a little straighter at their stations.  It wasn’t really surprising really.  This was, after all, the very thing that the inner child within all Starfleet officers craved.  The moment of freedom, when you were faced with the unknown.  When you looked out and realized that with all of this vastness that you had the capacity to go anywhere you wanted to go.  When you willingly embraced exile from family and friends and the places that you have been and loved, in favor of something new.  Even with everything that hung over this ship, this was still the moment that every member of his bridge crew had been craving.

 

The first step of their journey.

 

“Mr Keel, bring impulse engines up to one quarter power.” Banks said quietly.

 

“Impulse engines to one quarter.” Keel confirmed as his hands darted across his console.

 

“Alright, Mr. Keel, get us out of here.  Mr. Richards, please give Mr. Keel the co-ordinates that we’re supposed to be starting our fist warp jump from so that he can get us into position.”

 

“Right-o, Sir.” The red-headed Cockney nodded. 

 

For several long moments, silence reigned as Chris Keel eased them out of the metallic womb the ship had ‘grown’ in.  As they floated into free space, Banks looked across at the engineering station.  “How’re we looking, Mr. Bli’inkavari?”

 

“All systems responding properly, sir,” The tiny engineer said instantly in her strange, lilting voice.

 

“How about from your end, Dr Sandburg?”  The Captain turned toward the young scientist.  The younger man’s hands danced across his console for a moment, before he turned and offered up one of his sunshine-through-the-clouds smiles.  “Everything’s looking good from here too, Simon!” he grinned, and then faltered as he caught the steely look the captain gave him, “Errr, Captain, I mean.” He said quickly and turned back toward his console.  Banks shook his head before looking back at the viewscreen.

 

“In position now, Captain.” Keel said suddenly, and Banks nodded. 

 

“Mr Curtis, please inform Starfleet Command that we’re about to make our initial jump to warp speed.” The Captain ordered.

 

“Aye, Sir.” Curtis responded.  Banks waited until he could see that Curtis was finished before addressing the young Englishman again.

 

“Open the ship’s communication channels, Mr. Curtis.” Banks said quietly, and Curtis nodded solemnly as he complied. 

 

It was tradition on Starfleet vessels, that the Captain should give a small speech to the crew right before the ship’s maiden warp jump.  Banks hated giving speeches, but he knew better than to mess with tradition.  Besides, he had some things that he wanted to say to his people.

 

“Crewmembers of the Raptor, this is your Captain, Simon Banks.  As you are all undoubtedly aware, we’re about to make our first jump to warp speed.  Before we set out to undertake the mission we’ve been presented with, I wanted to take this opportunity to both thank you, and congratulate you on your professionalism.  Each and every one of you proved your worth before this ship had even left space dock.  You have all conducted yourselves in a manner that would make any Commanding Officer proud, under circumstances that were at best trying.  You have shown yourselves to be hard-working, innovative and vigilant, and these qualities will be called upon again and again as we undertake the mission ahead of us.

 

This crew has been charged with the task of bringing order to one of the most chaotic regions of known space.  To complete this mission, we will be forced to step outside the safety of Federation space and into ‘no-man’s land’.  In a sense, we will be ‘boldly going’ as no Starfleet crew has done since the pioneering days of Starfleet.  We will be all we have to rely on.  Look around you people.  Your life will be dependant on the efforts of everyone you see, and their lives will be dependant on you. 

 

Perhaps even more importantly though, there will be other lives dependant on your efforts.  The people that inhabit the Romulan Neutral Zone have long given up on the concept of justice.  Their region of space has, for generations now, been the breeding grounds for scum of every kind, safe from the powerful authorities of both the Federation and the Romulan Empire.  For that reason, the peoples of this region of space have been forced to live under the constant threat of the attention of thieves, terrorists and tyrants of every variety, without hope of protection.  In the months ahead, this ship will provide that protection.

 

Through your efforts, this ship will defend those who have previously been defenseless.  We will bring the law to those who have previously prided themselves on being lawless.  We will hunt down those that have used the freedom of neutral space to hide from Justice.

 

Our task will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.  We will not have the back-up from the Federation that so many of our colleagues are able to take for granted.  We will have to remain on our guard at all times, because there will be none of the comfortable ‘known’ situations that the well explored Federation Space has.  The dangers that we will face will be many and varied, but you have already proven that the indomitable spirit of Starfleet’s pioneers exist within each of you.  If it weren’t, you would have requested a transfer to a safer assignment when things started going bad before we’d even started.  You didn’t though.  And you’ve proven to me, through your faith in yourselves and in each other, that we have the capacity to succeed in the face of a daunting task.

 

Good luck everyone.  Now attend to your posts.  We have a jump to make.”  Banks sat back in his chair as Curtis cut the ship’s intercom. The tall man looked across at the navigator.  “Are our co-ordinates set?” he asked Richards without preliminaries.

 

“Ye’ Sir.” Richards confirmed.

 

“Are the warp engines primed?” Banks demanded of Bli’inkavari.

 

“Aye, sir.” The small Torishii responded.

 

Banks took a deep breath.  “Very well, Mr. Keel,” the Captain said with slow deliberateness.  “Engage.”

 


 

Just beyond star dock, the relatively small, sleekly lined starship winked out of sight, as the Raptor finally took flight…

 


 

Admiral Harry Malone looked up impatiently as a small chime at his office door sounded.

 

“Enter.” He snapped with his customary shortness of tone.  A second later, a tall, elegant young man stepped into his office and approached his desk.  Malone looked at the young man and scowled.  “What is it, Spencer?”

 

“Just thought you’d like to know, sir, that the Raptor had survived it’s maiden jump.  It came out of warp just outside Earth’s solar system.  They’re running the compulsory post warp checks as we speak, but things are looking good for them to remain on schedule.”

 

“Hmm.” The Admiral sat back and looked at his subordinate shrewdly.  “Obviously you’ve heard from 3-7 then.”

 

“Err, yes Sir.” Spencer nodded, looking slightly abashed.

 

“It’s not like you to not provide a transcript of an operative’s report for me to go over.” Malone said with exaggerated gentleness.  “Is there any particular reason why you haven’t provided me with one this time?”

 

“I thought you might prefer to just hear the facts, sir.” Spencer looked a little pained, but Malone simply cocked an eyebrow and held out his hand.  The younger man sighed, and then placed the small data-chip he’d been concealing in his palm into his commanding officer’s outstretched hand.  Malone snapped the chip into the data pad he kept on his desk, and watched as the message came up.

 

So far, so good.  Didn’t go ‘bang’ yet.

Tell the Old Man he’s going to owe us a month on Riesel 7 for this assignment.

 

3-7

 

Malone scowled, but it really wasn’t any more than he’d expected.  He’d placed his best team on board the Raptor, and brilliance of any kind brought it’s own brand of arrogance.  The Admiral looked at his still waiting subordinate and scowled.

 

“Was there something else, Mr. Spencer?” he asked peevishly.

 

“Ahh, no, sir.” Spencer shook his head quickly.

 

“Then why are you still here?” Malone asked pointedly.  Spencer sketched a salute and then quickly retreated.  Malone watched him go, and then sat back with a sigh.  They’d managed to keep the ship from suffering further sabotage, but that was just the first step.  Harry Malone knew his opponent, very well, and while they may have thwarted the enemy in the short term, he wouldn’t give up without a fight.

 

They still had a long way to go…

End of Part 2