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Actualize This

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Authors Notes: This story is a crossover among The Sentinel, The Invisible Man, and Stargate SG-1. For show descriptions and pictures of the characters (if you're not already familiar with them), you can check out their SciFi channel pages:

http://www.scifi.com/sentinel
http://www.scifi.com/invisibleman
http://www.scifi.com/stargate

Many thanks to Martha, Jamie, Grace, and Sweens for betaing.

 

Actualize This
by Helena Handbasket

 

"Sir, you have *got* to be joking." Jim Ellison's eyes narrowed and he pressed his lips together, attempting to determine whether his boss was trying to put one over on him. Among his other qualities, Captain Simon Banks was known for having a particularly twisted sense of humor.

Simon shook his head unapologetically. "No joke, Jim. You and Sandburg are booked on a ferry first thing tomorrow morning."

Despite himself, Blair Sandburg snorted in amusement, earning a sour look from his partner. "A ferry?"

"The island where you'll be staying doesn't have an airport. The ferry is the fastest way there." Leaning back in his chair, Simon lit himself a cigar, his thumb flicking over the lighter's flint several times before it finally took.

Frowning, Jim looked absently at the contents of the ashtray, placed irreverently beside a plastic 'no smoking' sign on the Captain's desk; the empty matchbook lying amongst the piles of ash explained his use of the lighter. Jim shook his head. Even in the face of incipient brainwashing he couldn't stop being a detective. "But we have cases," he insisted. "Important cases. We can't just pick up and leave."

"Like hell you can't. I've given the Jameson double homicide to Brown and the Ranetti case to Conner. Your docket is clear through Tuesday, at which point I expect you both back here, well rested and fully actualized."

Jim winced and regarded his partner. "Your mother is secretly behind this assignment, isn't she?"

"You wish," Blair laughed, pushing a fallen curl away from his face. "At least if Naomi were involved we could be sure there'd be plenty of alcohol included in the deal." Even in the face of incipient brainwashing he couldn't stop being a smart-ass.

"This isn't an 'assignment,'" Simon interjected, his voice sharp to nip their inevitable argument in the bud. "It's a retreat."

"*Forced* retreat," Jim reminded him.

"Whatever," Simon snapped back. This resistance was not unexpected, and he had duly prepared himself to become irritated as quickly as possible. "The long and the short of it is that the Mayor said 'jump,' I said 'how high?' and *you two* are going to do the jumping. Right onto that ferry. And you're going to learn how to..." He scowled and rifled around his desk for the brochure, squinting at it distastefully. "'... synergize your emotional anchors, validate your partnership's internal well-being, and construct spiritual channelways of communicative harmony.'" Simon looked up. "And whatever other crap they want to teach you."

"It won't be so bad," Blair offered, patting Jim sympathetically on the shoulder. "We'll get away from the city for a few days, learn all about how to express our emotions in a marginally less stilted manner, and get a fascinating insight into the world of partner dynamics in national law enforcement."

Unmollified by these words of consolation, Jim turned to Simon, wincing. "Sir, are you *sure* I can't bring my gun?"

 

***

 

"Paid vacation?" Schooled by years of experience, Bobby Hobbes was immediately suspicious. He was also experiencing some less well-justified, unfocused paranoia, but that was probably because he had forgotten to take his medication that morning.

The Official had expected precisely this response. His clasped hands jostled several neatly stacked piles of paper as he leaned forward across his desk. Behind him, Eberts emitted a stifled whimper. "Paid vacation," he repeated.

Like his partner, Darien Fawkes was skeptical. "And by 'vacation,' I assume you mean that no one will try to shoot us?"

"That's the idea."

"No catch?"

"No catch."

"So who's picking up the tab for this bad boy?"

Before the Official could respond, Eberts was out of the gates. "The capital for this program, I believe, is derived from a centralized indiscretionary fund under the auspices of the State Department. There will be representatives from nearly every military and law enforcement agency in the United States."

"It's the test run for a proposed nationwide program," the Official explained. "A little government experiment, if you will."

"Oh that's just great," Darien scoffed. "And we all know how well *those* turn out."

Hobbes' mind, however, was still dwelling upon other matters. "Just to make this crystal clear, we *are* getting paid, right?"

Darien rolled his eyes. "Hobbes..."

"And you're sure this isn't some sort of hoax drummed up by the Canadian Liberation Front?"

"Hobbes," the Official warned, his expression mirthless.

Unfazed, Hobbes narrowed his eyes. "I'm just glad to see our crack team is finally getting the recognition and reward we so richly deserve," he said pointedly.

"Shut up, Eberts." Whatever his assistant was about to say, the Official knew it would not help in bringing this discussion to an efficacious end.

Although still not thoroughly convinced, it was as close as Hobbes was going to get. He looked up at Darien and waggled his eyebrows delightedly. "Paid vacation."

Darien was significantly less enthused. "Yeah, but it's in Canada."

"So what?"

"Canada, Hobbes."

"Free vacation, Fawkes."

"You say 'vacation,' I say 'new-age hippie therapist summer camp nightmare.'" He paused thoughtfully and then added, "In Canada."

At this point, the Official had had enough. "Out. Both of you."

 

***

 

"Four days leave?" Jack O'Neill raised his eyebrows, his expression a mixture of satisfaction and surprise. "Sweet."

Leaning forward at his desk, General Hammond sighed. "I'm afraid it's not that simple, Colonel. Your temporary leave from the SGC comes with its own prerequisites. You and Dr. Jackson have been asked to participate in a very... specific expenditure of your leisure time."

Jack frowned. "So... no Minnesota?"

The general shook his head grimly.

"So, I'm curious," Daniel began, contemplatively tapping his steepled fingers against his lips. He wasn't bluffing. Daniel Jackson was *always* curious. "What exactly will we be doing during this... specific expenditure of our leisure time?"

"It's a government program," Hammond explained, "designed to improve the interpersonal skills of individuals in the employ of the military and law-enforcement."

"What's wrong with my interpersonal skills?" Jack demanded.

In the chair next to him, Daniel slid his eyes awkwardly to the side, stopping just short of innocent whistling.

"Oh," said Jack, "Yeah. Well Daniel's could use some work."

Daniel raised his eyebrows and regarded Jack with mild affront. The side of the colonel's mouth twitched into a momentary, uncertain smile before he turned back to face the general, deadpan.

Hammond sighed. "I don't know how useful it will be," he admitted. "It appears to be geared towards enhancing the communication between members of a two-man partnership."

"But Jack and I aren't partners," Daniel insisted, looking confused in the way that he always did when someone was telling him something stupid. "We're part of a four-person team."

"That's what I told them," Hammond replied, "but they wouldn't listen. They required the participation of a two-man team and you two are the closest thing the SGC has got. Teal'c is off-world with SG-5, Major Carter is giving a guest lecture at the Academy and SG-1 isn't scheduled for another mission until the middle of next week. So you two are conveniently disposed to do some pandering to the federal government."

Jack scowled. "What? Saving the world isn't enough?"

Judiciously ignoring the comment, the general continued. "At 0500 tomorrow there will be a chopper waiting to take you to Nichols' Air Force Base in northern Washington. They'll arrange transportation for you into Cascade, where you'll pick up the ferry to Plenary Island."

"Plenary Island," Daniel repeated. "Plenary Island, Canada?"

"That's right."

Jack pursed his lips and shrugged. A vacation was a vacation.

General Hammond nodded decisively. "Now, if there are no further questions, you're dismissed."

"Ah..." Daniel furrowed his brow uncertainly and half-raised his hand. When the general gave him an expectant look he said, "I have a question." His eyes darted side to side momentarily until he realized that his question was not necessarily obvious to everyone else present. "Why would a United States federally-sponsored retreat take place in Canada?"

 

***

 

"I hope you gentlemen are as excited about this cooperative journey of self-discovery as I am!" The speaker was unsettlingly perky. She was one of those middle-aged women with the very specific combination of age-inappropriate enthusiasm and makeup slathered over sun-weathered skin that made her look like a melted cheerleader.

Her statement was met with a chorus of resentful grunts. There were sixty some men crowded into the lodge's moderate dining room, each involuntarily barefoot against the coarse texture of cheap carpeting. The tables and chairs had been pushed to the periphery of the room to leave an open area in the middle with plenty of space for the playing of drums and the exchanging of talking sticks and the chanting of trite corporate mantras, or whatever bullshit the plastic harpy was scheming to inflict on them. Jim was already beginning to wonder if this weekend would be even worse than his pessimistically creative mind had imagined.

The woman's spidery eyelashes lowered dangerously at the distinct lack of glee evoked by her pep talk and she glanced about the room, glaring venom at any fool who dared to meet her gaze, until a clarion voice rose up out of the grumbling crowd.

"Right on, sister!"

Blair Sandburg was having the time of his life. He thought this was fucking hilarious.

Jim elbowed his guide irritably in hopes of shutting him up, but it was too late. The words were out. He could already feel a legion of eyes descending upon them as the national experts on crime, terrorism, and biological warfare marked them as the official brown-nosing fuckwits of the encounter group. Spectacular. Maybe they'd get t-shirts. Or acorn bracelets. Or cyanide capsules.

And Blair just stood there grinning like an idiot, waving merrily at every no-neck Fed that cast a disparaging look in their direction. Jim wondered whether he could get away with claiming that they were the security contingent from the Special Olympics.

Encouraged by this show of support, the harpy was delighted to continue. "Now we're going to break into small groups - or what I like to call Sharing Modules - so we can start to learn a bit more about each other..." Her smile slid across her face like cold syrup, "... and ourselves." She nodded vapidly for a few moments before adding, "Now if everyone will please gather under the aura of your assigned Communication Counselor, we can begin."

What ensued was a lugubrious chaos in which the damned plodded reluctantly towards their designated motivational trainees, who purported to hold the secret to making the business of saving lives a more holistic and fulfilling experience for everyone involved. Jim sighed and fished around in his pocket for the ticket with their assignment on it: Sharing Module One.

"Great," he sighed, wedging the ticket between two knuckles and flicking it towards his partner. "We're in Tammy Faye's Simp Squadron. That's just perfect."

"It's called a Sharing Module, Jim," Blair chuckled, spotting the workshop's leader at a numbered table on the far side of the room and offering her a friendly wave. "You've got to lighten up and stop taking this so seriously, man. The more you struggle the deeper they dig those claws."

Jim winced as the flickering fluorescent lights glinted off of their hostess' candy red false nails. Much though he hated to admit it, Blair was probably right. It would be better just to cooperate: let the harpy eat her fill of his dignity and move on to the next poor jackass on the shish kebob of cooperative team-building. "Fine," he muttered as Blair grabbed his wrist and began to haul him off to their table, "but can you at least cut the Pollyanna act? It's bad enough being stuck here without the rest of these guys thinking we actually put stock in this load of crap."

Blair laughed and looked around the room appraisingly. "Nah. If anything, they'll assume we've been planted by the workshop coordinators to encourage participation."

"So they'll think we're in with the enemy?" Jim exhaled sharply through his nose. "Even better."

They took their places at the table and the harpy beamed at them with shark-like teeth. She was only two seats away, and Jim could tell from her breath that she'd had cigarettes and orange juice for breakfast - and it was that concentrated crap, not even fresh-squeezed. She caught his eye and was threatening to strike up a conversation until he was rescued by the arrival of a second pair of miserable saps.

The younger one was tall and lanky, with hair that hadn't been cut since the seventies and a wardrobe to match. He wore a mask of irreverence in a transparent attempt to hide his fundamental cluelessness. God, even Sandburg had never looked *that* green. The punk slouched into the seat next to Blair.

"Nice hair, man," he said, eyes narrowed by the weight of his boredom. If the remark had come from any other guy in the room, Jim would have taken it as a crack. Coming from this joker, though, it was probably a compliment. Blair took it as such.

"Hey, thanks, man."

The joker's partner was distinctly undelighted by his choice of seats. He was older, more experienced. One of those stocky tough-guy feds that did more shooting than thinking, but whenever he did either he probably did it well. However, the worn elbows on his leather jacket suggested that he wasn't paid very well and he had a twitchiness about him that spoke of a man who played pep pills against sleeping pills to maintain just the right level of alertness. Today he had gone a little heavy on the pep pills. Either that or he had to take a piss.

"Fawkes," he hissed, tearing his partner away from his attempts to exchange beauty secrets with Blair.

"Whaaaat?"

Christ, the kid was even whinier than he looked. He was a typical specimen of the young hot-shots that seemed to be cropping up all over the government these days: too good-looking for his own good and too arrogant for anyone else's.

"We're not sitting there, Fawkes, we're sitting here." Joe Fed was resolute as he jerked his head towards the other side of the table. When his partner did not immediately move to join him he pursed his lips irritably. "Fawkes," he said again, more insistently. His eyes, seeming to function independently from their master, scanned the room with a suspicious gleam.

Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Mr. Fabulous hauled himself out of his chair, saying to Blair, "We can talk about this later," and shuffled around to the other side of the table, where his partner was primly taking his seat. He pulled a face as he flopped into his own chair and muttered what was obviously a petulant remark under his breath.

Joe Fed was not amused. He sniped back at his partner and gestured adamantly at the dining room's wide-open double doors. So that was it. The guy didn't want to sit with his back to the door. He was even more messed up than Jim had originally suspected. The two men continued to bicker, their conversation soon degenerating into an exchange of decreasingly gentle shoves until Mr. Fabulous nearly took a tumble in his chair at which point he folded his arms and refused to play.

Jim shook his head glumly. With these two chumps in the mix he'd never be able to pull off the Special Olympics racket.

"Can you believe that guy?" Blair chuckled, leaning towards Jim but keeping his eyes fixed on their new companions with rapt fascination. "Care to take a guess at how many hair care products he uses?"

"At least nine, by the smell of him," Jim snorted.

"Hey, that's right!" Blair enthused. "You're really getting good at this, man."

At this point, Tammy Faye authoritatively cleared her throat. "I'd like to welcome you all to our Sharing Module," she crooned. Now that she didn't have to project to an entire room, the shrill edge had gone out of her voice and she sounded less like a camp counselor and more like a therapist. Jim couldn't decide which he found more distasteful. "The other Modules are all getting started but we're still missing one of our couples and I really think we ought to wait for them."

Jim scowled. "Ah, what was that? Couple? We are *not* a couple."

"More like an investigative dyad," Blair pointed out unhelpfully. Across the table, Joe Fed knit his brow in confusion.

The harpy's gaze hardened. "'Couple' is the terminology we use for any pair of individuals responsible for working cooperatively and looking out for each other's welfare. There is no associated lifestyle implied."

Joe Fed found the need to pipe up at this, cocking his head to the side with the knowledgeable air of someone who had been to a lot of shrinks. "That's right," he said. "A partnership is like a marriage and it should be treated with an according level of respect and commitment." He beamed triumphantly as his partner undertook the impossible task of sinking even further into his chair.

"Precisely," said Tammy Faye with a disingenuous, close-lipped smile. She nodded at Joe Fed in a way that declared she was perfectly capable of speaking for herself, thank you. Once the upstart had been properly shamed, she turned to Jim with a concerned expression. "I have to say that it troubles me that you should react so negatively to our terminology. Words are just words. Only *people* can cause harm."

"Yeah, Jim," Blair added, his subtle snickering all too obvious to sentinel ears. "Embrace the vocabulary of our fundamental oneness."

Jim kicked him under the table and he emitted a snort of laughter, but the harpy was too distracted to retaliate. She was peering across the room at two men that had just arrived and had been waylaid by the door monitor, who was insisting that they remove their shoes.

The elder of the two was obviously no happier to be at this retreat than Jim was. His hair was partially gray and he wore jeans and a black t-shirt - nothing special - but there was something about the shirt, or perhaps the way the man carried himself in it, that screamed 'standard military issue.' He was Air Force, Jim decided. The guy had that air of unashamed superiority that you only got from the flyboys. But he also had a sarcastic edge to his bearing that lent him promise as someone who might be worth talking to. He looked around the room with a sour grimace, as if everything in it smelled like feet. Jim sniffed the air experimentally. Actually, the room did smell a lot like feet. Maybe this guy was a sentinel.

His companion was a different story entirely. He was neatly groomed in khakis and a ribbed sweater and he carried himself with the forced poise of a man who had shed his natural clumsiness over years of studious practice. His hair was just a smidgen too long to meet the military regs, but it was really the glasses that gave him away. Jim smiled. His new flyboy friend had brought his very own nerd. He might be a nerd with a charge card at Structure, but he was a nerd all the same.

Once they had been relieved of their footwear, the pair began crossing the room, making a direct line for their table. Jim watched closely as the flyboy's nerd leaned in with a wry smile to whisper something to his companion, who exercised great restraint in refusing to laugh. He felt a sudden pang of jealousy as he cast a dubious sideways look at Blair; he was busy chatting up the harpy with a barrage of New-Age buzzwords. Sighing, he looked longingly back at the flyboy's nerd, who was inclining his head towards another Sharing Module that had already been induced to hold hands and chant. The poor bastards had been broken in less than fifteen minutes.

The flyboy couldn't help but laugh at the indicated spectacle and he clapped a hand on his companion's shoulder. Jim sighed, ruefully admitting that this was a totally different breed of nerd than he was used to. This was a nerd with a certain level of decorum. This was a nerd who was not going to deliberately embarrass his partner. This was a nerd that probably picked up his goddamn wet towels and hung them neatly on the rack when he was done in the shower.

The pair approached the table. "This SM-1?" the flyboy inquired dryly.

"Welcome to both of you," purred Tammy Faye. "Please take a seat." As they did so, she beamed her lacquered smile at the table at large. "Now that our final couple has arrived, we can begin our journey of self-discovery to explore a new foundation of 'us.'"

"Oh, goody," Mr. Fabulous mumbled, popping a stick of gum into his mouth. "It's time for the prom."

 

***

 

"Well that was a friggin' wash," Hobbes grumbled as he pushed his way through the crowd that was fleeing the dining room like rats on a sinking ship.

Fawkes meandered after him, a complacent smirk plastered across his face. "What did you expect, Hobbes? That three and a half hours of catchphrase bombardment would lead you to your personal nirvana?"

"No" he replied defensively, shrugging away the hand of one of the touchy-feely motivational schlomos in teal izods that were endeavoring to guide the group out of the room for their lunch break, as if five dozen high-level government agents couldn't figure out how to walk through a door on their own. He stared the guy down and turned back to his partner. "Look, this isn't exactly my dream vacation either, Fawkes, but as long as we're here we should make the best of it. Maybe we can learn something that will help us develop as a couple."

"Okay, I've got to go with the big grumpy guy on this," Darien moaned. "I'm not a big fan of this whole 'couple' terminology."

"Fine then," Hobbes huffed. "Investigative dye-wad. Whatever."

His partner snuffled at this, but refused to expound upon what he had found so damn hilarious.

"I'm trying to make the best of a bad situation," he continued, "make lemonade out of lemons. But you? You're just stomping all over the lemons until the peel gets all ground up into the fruit and there's sticky lemon juice all over the floor."

"That's a great analogy, Hobbes," Fawkes offered. "No really, I mean it."

"Alls I'm saying is that it wouldn't kill you to cooperate for a change. Partners do for each other, right? And it's not like the other mooks in our group were doing anything to make it a constructive experience. Especially that hairy kid that wouldn't shut up."

Fawkes chuckled. "Oh, I see what this is all about. You're just jealous because Belinda likes Curly better than she likes you."

Hobbes stopped and frowned up at his partner. "Is it Belinda? I thought her name was Brenda."

"Whatever," he replied with a concessionary shrug. "It's not like I was paying attention."

The crowd thinned out as they emerged into the lobby and Hobbes pulled his personalized agenda out of his inside coat pocket to check their lunch assignment. "We're supposed to report to 'Friendship Circle 7' to 'embrace the selves of our fellow learners.'" He sighed. "Here's hoping that these selves are a little more embraceable than the jerks we had this morning."

"Is it possible that 'embracing the selves' is actually a euphemism for eating sandwiches?" Fawkes wondered. "Because I made a lot of progress on me this morning and it's worked up quite an appetite."

"The only progress you made this morning was in the frequency of smart-ass comments," he replied. "Which, incidentally, were falling even flatter than usual."

Fawkes put on an aggravatingly fake tearful expression. "Now that wasn't very supportive," he chided. "When you stifle the creativity of the inner child you damage the spiritual well-being of the outer adult."

Despite his partner's attempt at sarcasm, Hobbes smiled brightly at this. "You see?" he said. "You were paying attention after all."

After a short bout of searching they spotted 'Friendship Circle Seven,' which was in reality just a round picnic table on the far edge of the lodge's balcony, which afforded a spectacular view of the parking lot. Immediately, Hobbes' hopes for an improvement in companionship were dashed. Already seated at the table was the foursome that he had come to loathe.

First there was Scowly, whose endless stream of sarcastic commentary put Fawkes' pathetic quips to shame. His pal, Brainy, had chimed in now and then throughout the morning's session to offer his no-doubt brilliant insight on how by training them to speak only in cliches BrendaBelinda was 'reducing their pre-existing linguistic formalism to so much meaningless drivel.' He was constantly using words like 'esoteric' and 'mitigate' that gave Hobbes a stomachache. Grumpy's overt hostility towards the process had earned him begrudging respect in that he seemed to frighten BrendaBelinda, who was admittedly annoying as hell, but it still didn't mean Hobbes was interested in spending any time with him. And last of all there was Curly - the hated Curly - who bandied about motivational jargon like he was raised in a Successories factory.

When Fawkes caught sight of the table's occupants, his face contorted into a grotesque leer of amusement. "Well hello again," he crooned, obviously less infuriated with the collective company than his partner. His greeting was met with awkward nods as they took their place on the vacant bench seat.

Shortly after their arrival, a suspicious waiter arrived to drop off a basket of bread and then hovered nearby in an obvious attempt to eavesdrop on their conversation. Prudently, the group refused to comply, gnawing their bread in retaliatory silence until Hobbes finally came to the rescue and sent Snoopy packing, demanding that he let them enjoy their meal in peace. This heroic gesture, however, was met with little or no gratitude from his companions. Their bald-faced thanklessness left a sour taste in his mouth and made the bread, which was already unpleasantly dry, that much more difficult to swallow.

The silence continued for some time, despite the absence of the nosy waiter, but once the basket had been emptied there was nothing left for the men to do but stare at each other awkwardly. At this point Curly - who was apparently on the take from the workshop organizers - decided it was time to fulfill his role as Boss of Everyone.

"So," he chirped, disrupting the silence so suddenly that Scowly started choking and spat half-chewed breadcrumbs all over the table. Brainy was obliged to pound on his back for nearly a minute before he stopped coughing, at which point Scowly chugged his entire glass of water as well as the one he thought was Brainy's. Unfortunately, this second glass turned out to be Grumpy's, and although Brainy willingly gave up his own glass of water in exchange, the entire table got bent out of shape when there was no waiter in the vicinity to provide them with refills, a misfortune that somehow prompted them all to glare at Hobbes.

But despite these ominous mishaps, Curly waited until the dust and breadcrumbs had settled and boldly pressed on. "It seems like the point of this lunch is for us to get to know each other," he said, "so maybe we should go around the table and introduce ourselves." The group's response to this suggestion was distinctly unenthusiastic, but he continued on regardless. "Okay, I'll start. I'm Blair Sandburg. I'm a civilian consultant to the police department in Cascade." He smiled and looked expectantly at his partner, who wasn't paying the remotest amount of attention.

Grumpy was dead to the world, staring off into space. When Hobbes tried to follow his gaze it led him down the hillside and through the open window of a cabin whose resident was watching television, although it was much too far away to make out what program it was. When he failed to respond, Curly elbowed him roughly.

"What?" he barked, scowling a scowl that must have made Scowly proud.

"Introduce yourself, Jim," Curly hissed.

"Detective Jim Ellison. Major Crimes. Cascade PD." He emitted a tight-lipped sigh and then added, "I don't want to be here."

"I'd drink to that if I had any water," Scowly said, raising his eyebrows and directing a less-than-friendly smile at Hobbes. "I'm Colonel Jack O'Neill. U.S. Air Force. This is Dr. Daniel Jackson." This second introduction came before Brainy had a chance to do it himself, a fact that only seemed to peeve him mildly.

"A doctor? Really?" gushed Curly, leaning forward and establishing his Human Resources stipulated eye-contact. "What kind of doctor are you?"

Brainy blinked, seeming surprised that anyone had bothered to ask. "A doctor of archaeology, actually. And linguistics."

"No kidding!" If this wasn't the most fascinating thing Curly had ever heard in his life, he was putting on a pretty good show. "I'm working on my doctorate in anthropology..."

"Yep," interrupted Scowly with a boastful smile. "Danny's got one of those too."

"I'd love to hear all about your dissertation," Curly continued, "and ask your advice on a couple of..."

Grumpy became the hero of the table by cutting him off. "Maybe later, Chief," he said. "Let's at least get through the introductions before you go jetting off to the Sandburg Zone." He shifted his gaze to Fawkes expectantly.

"Darien Fawkes," he said simply and went back to futzing with his hair.

Hobbes shook his head at his partner's lackluster performance and decided to pick up the slack. "Special Agent Bobby Hobbes," he declared with grand authority. "F&G."

The table was silent until Brainy piped up with, "What?"

Hobbes blinked uncertainly for a moment and then repeated himself. "Bobby Hobbes. F&G."

"What's 'F&G'?" Brainy asked, revealing himself to be less thoroughly educated than he outwardly appeared.

Nevertheless, Hobbes smiled, his expression all politeness. "The Department of Fish and Game, my friend. Serving our great country and its noble wildlife."

"Ah," the fancy doctor replied. "Aha."

There was another extended and painful silence that was only alleviated when the waiter arrived with their salads. He dropped a small plate in front of each of them and then skittered away so swiftly that they missed their opportunity to ask for more water.

Hobbes tucked into his salad, poking dubiously at the wilted greens, but became distracted by a bustle of activity across the table. Grumpy and Curly were a blur of arms and utensils and vegetables as the contents of their salads were deftly renegotiated. Radishes and carrots migrated from one plate to another, while the slices of onions were scraped carefully onto a bread plate to ensure a complete and harmonious exchange. The process went smoothly until a brief argument erupted over who had stolen whose cherry tomato. This dispute was quickly resolved by Fawkes, who offered up his own tomato to the satisfaction of all parties.

While his partner seemed to take this disturbing level of domesticity in stride, Hobbes found it nothing short of mesmerizing. He glanced over at Scowly and Brainy and felt vindicated to find that they were as flabbergasted by this bizarre ritual of salad negotiations as he was.
Once everyone's salads were deemed acceptable, Fawkes snorted in amusement, speaking through a half-chewed mouthful of lettuce. "You sure you two aren't a couple?"

Grumpy's fork halted midway to his mouth and he looked askance at his partner, who just chuckled and went on with his meal. The big man's jaw clenched and the huge vein in his neck swelled, threatening to explode all over the butter dish. Apparently they got this question a lot.

Hobbes smiled to himself. Nice one, Fawkes.

 

***

 

'Thank god for fishing,' Jack thought, not for the first time in the conversation. The majority of lunch had been excruciating as they struggled for something - anything - to talk about. He always hated this kind of meet and greet bullshit, and with this crowd it had been especially difficult. The big cop seemed like an okay sort, if a little too serious, but his partner was like Daniel hopped up on crack and about thirty eight rounds of sarcophagus. And as far as he could tell, both of the guys from Fish and Game were just plain nuts.

But then, like a shining beacon of salvation, he had happened to mutter, "I'd rather be fishing," and eyes throughout the table lit up like a landing strip. Both cops and one of the feds were also devoted to the sport and they dove into the topic with almost laughable relish. That four or more individuals in the group shared any commonality other than maybe - MAYBE - originating from the same planet seemed like one of those unlikely contingencies that Carter needed a big fancy computer to calculate the probability of. This still left Daniel and Snake to either sit in complacent silence or fend for themselves, but he didn't think they could do much better.

Jack still had no idea what anyone's name was. He had zoned out during the introductions, too distracted by the fastidious attentions Snake was paying to his hair. Fortunately, he had spent the entire morning meticulously determining which Simpsons character each of their companions most strongly resembled and therefore had perfectly good names for everyone.

Otto had been the easiest to name by virtue of his hairstyle, even if his hyperactivity prevented him from adequately representing the stoner bus driver's laidback attitude. Snake had been another cakewalk, not just for his appearance but because he had a vague criminality about him with his smug nature and his cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. Snake's partner presented a challenge at first but Jack decided he looked enough like Millhouse's dad to warrant the nickname. Then when the guy broke out with all his therapy-speak, the assignment was a lock: Jack could practically hear him bursting into a heartwarming chorus of, "Can I Borrow a Feeling?" While he was momentarily stymied by the fact that he couldn't remember the character's actual name, he ultimately decided that "Mr. Millhouse" was evocative enough to satisfy.

The big guy was the toughest nut to crack, as Jack simply could not decide between Rainier Wolfcastle and General Hap Hapablap. Finally he settled on Rainier Hapablap because that way, he argued, everyone would win. He had gotten through a good hour of the morning's torments by imagining Hap Wolfcastle dropping to his knees, tearing his shirt off, and crying "Meeeennnndooooozzzzzaaaa!"

Such diversions had allowed Jack to completely ignore the motivational mumbo-jumbo and thereby prevented him from getting overly irritated by it. Daniel, on the other hand, had employed no such clever defense mechanism, and over the course of the morning he had become increasingly agitated by the sheer ludicrousness of it all. He had spent the first part of the morning doing that thing where he tensed up and started radiating concentrated waves of annoyance that were intense enough to roast a chicken. Then he started exhaling in little bursts, as if by breathing more violently he could vent the roiling frustrations in his brain. It was the buzzwords that did it: they were a particular pet peeve of Daniel's - he thought they bastardized the language - and by the end of the session his foot had been tapping compulsively. Now, most of the way through lunch, he was only just beginning to unwind. Jack wasn't sure he would survive a second session.

Given his friend's agitation, Jack felt slightly guilty that he, Rainier, Otto, and Mr. Millhouse were dominating the conversation with fish stories, but he also felt proud on all their behalves that they had managed to talk about fishing for a full half an hour before launching into overt falsehoods.

He diverted some of his attention away from the main discussion when he noticed that Snake had finally gotten fed up with it and struck up a conversation with Daniel.

"So," Snake said, slapping his elbow onto the table so that he could prop up his head. He tapped the side of his face with his pinky as he spoke. "You're a doctor, huh?"

Daniel nodded somewhat self-consciously. "Yes, an academic doctor. Most people assume medical."

Snake nodded as if the same thing had often been assumed of him. "You a genius?" he blurted out abruptly.

Naturally, this question caught Daniel off-guard. With Carter around, he probably got asked it a lot less often than he should. "Ah... well," he stammered. "I suppose that depends on how you technically define 'genius.' For instance, if you go strictly by Mensa standards, then I'm..."

"I coulda been a member of Menzo," Mr. Millhouse took the time to point out, despite being in the middle of a story about the time he had caught a thirty two inch rainbow trout in northern Alaska.

"Mensa, Hobbes," Snake corrected wearily, even though his partner obviously wasn't listening.

Daniel pursed his lips and leaned forward to scratch the back of his neck. He obviously wasn't sure what to say, and Jack thought that was hilarious.

"My brother was a genius too," Snake related abruptly. "Yeah. But he's dead now."

"Well I know how he feels," Daniel muttered, prompting Jack to look at him sharply.

"Daniel," he admonished, raising his eyebrows with as much depth of meaning as he could possibly muster.

Daniel rolled his eyes and tilted his head towards Snake. "Jack."

Jack wasn't sure if he bought that argument. "Daniel?"

"Jack."

Okay, so maybe Daniel was right. Offhand remarks that were intended as sarcasm but also just happened to be true thanks to highly advanced alien technology didn't exactly constitute a breach of global security. Jack frowned and gave a concessionary shrug. Across the table, he heard Mr. Millhouse murmur, "Ooh, they're good."

"Thank god! Coffee!" Otto practically squealed. Well, it wasn't so much of a squeal as it was a gasp of relief as he spied the gangly waiter loping up with a large green carafe. Nevertheless, Jack winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. Somehow, he didn't think Otto needed any more coffee. He glanced up to offer Hap a look of sympathy but found that the cop was chatting quite happily with this partner, a smile of endearment upon his face. Huh. Apparently Otto was the type that grew on you upon closer acquaintance, kind of like Danny. He was still a complete geek, though.

As the waiter came around to fill all of their cups, Mr. Millhouse watched him tetchily, eyes narrowed as he scanned the kid for a hint of a concealed weapon.

"Don't you have lattes or anything?" he grumbled, eyeing the carafe suspiciously. "Maybe a non-fat half-caf venti mocha? With a cinnamon stick?"

When the waiter responded that they just had regular and decaf, he snorted and said, "Typical. Damn Canadians think they're too good for normal coffee."

"Hobbes, those froofy concoctions you drink do *not* count as 'normal,'" Snake groaned. His voice had a weary edge that implied that they'd had this argument before. He tapped the steaming cup demonstratively with the back of his finger. "*This* is normal coffee. See, because it's just COFFEE."

But Mr. Millhouse just shook his head, smiling at his partner with a look of affectionate condescension. "You only say that because that's what they want you to think. You're totally taken in. It'll all come out one of these days, you'll see."

Jack blinked at the pair in amazement, marveling that they had demonstrated themselves to be even more nuts than he had originally suspected.

At his side, Daniel was gripping his coffee cup like a lifeline. It wasn't often that the linguist got the opportunity to truly savor his coffee - to drink it as a labor of love rather than a labor of labor - but when he did, he did so worshipfully. He breathed in the aromas, letting the steam wash over his face, and turned the cup around and around in his hands. For him, each gesture was a prayer, each sip its own offering to the gods of caffeine.

He was halfway through his extended preamble to coffee-ingestion when Otto spotted his behavior. "Hey, that's great," he said, gesturing expressively at Daniel without spilling a drop of his own coffee. The guy was obviously a professional caffeine addict. "A perfect example of how ritualistic practices are alive and well in today's modern society, assimilated smoothly into the mundane gestures of our daily lives."

Daniel smiled. "You caught me. I think you could fill an entire quarterly journal exclusively with articles on the food-related practices of academics."

Apparently this was an ingenious anthropology joke because Otto laughed openly at it. "So," he said brightly, "do you get much chance to study ritual phenomena in your work with the Air Force, Danny?"

Jack froze at this. So did Daniel. "Ah... well, yes I do occasionally," he hedged. "And, actually, I prefer 'Daniel.'"

To his credit, Otto seemed genuinely embarrassed. "Sorry," he offered and then nodded at Jack. "It's just that he called you..."

"I know," Daniel interrupted, waving away the apology as unnecessary. "There are a few certain exceptions," he paused, raising his eyebrows meaningfully before adding, "Chief."

Hap chuckled wryly at this as he lifted the coffee cup to his lips, but suddenly he grimaced and shot out a hand to knock the cup from his partner's grasp.

"What the hell, Jim?" Otto demanded.

"Don't drink that," he growled at a very surprised-looking Daniel who, despite his confusion, obediently returned his cup to its saucer. Hap looked around the table menacingly. "This coffee has been drugged."

Jack hadn't touched his yet, nor had Snake, but Mr. Millhouse had taken in a big mouthful just before Hap's outburst. He now spit this mouthful all over the table at large. "What do you mean, drugged? With what?"

"With drugs, obviously," Jack replied, scowling as he wiped the tainted liquid from his face. Mr. Millhouse didn't seem to appreciate this deduction any more than Jack appreciated being the prime target of a spit-take.

Otto, meanwhile, was staring fixedly at his partner. "What is it, Jim?" he whispered. "What did you... notice?"

The big cop was in his own world as he stared at his cup, head cocked in concentration. He seemed slightly confused by his actions, as if he had reacted on instinct and couldn't quite explain what had caused him to do so. He sniffed at the cup and then handed it to his partner. "The coffee's got a garlicky smell," he said, wrinkling his nose, "but more chemical. I'm pretty sure it's sodium pentothal."

"Sodium pentothal," Mr. Millhouse repeated, the syllables staccato like a semi-automatic. "That's a truth serum. Someone must be looking to shake us down for some serious intel."

"It's also used for mind control," Jack put in. "They could be trying to reprogram us, insert a trigger, something like that."

Snake snorted bitterly at this. "That's just freakin' great," he muttered. "I love it when Nameless Evil tries to mess with my head."

"And why us?" Otto wondered. "There's not much overlap among the police, the Air Force, and the Department of Fish and Game. So what's the commonality?"

"Maybe there is none," said Daniel, staring contemplatively at his mug as he tapped his chin with the knuckles of his clasped hands. Suddenly he looked up. "Why should we assume it's just us? That coffee was poured from a common ewer. Maybe every single person at this workshop has been drugged."

Horrified at the thought, Jack scanned the tables that surrounded them. Most of them sat empty save for the leftover dishes, as the service had been much quicker for those tables that hadn't harassed their waiters. "A simultaneous attack on every branch of military and law enforcement in the U.S. government," he breathed.

Instantly, he leapt from his chair and grabbed a coffee cup from the next table over. It had been drained to the dregs but he hoped it might still be of some use. He sniffed it. "Nope, I'm not getting any garlic," he said.

"Let me see," Hap had risen so quickly that he overturned his chair. He took the mug from Jack and shook his head. "No," he said. "This one's clean."

"Try that table," Mr. Millhouse suggested, nodding at the one directly behind Hap. "The waiter served them immediately before us. The java came from the very same batch."

Hap nodded and snatched a mug from the indicated table, frowning as soon as he brought it to his nose. "This one hasn't been drugged either," he said, looking at Mr. Millhouse dubiously. "Are you sure this came from the same batch of coffee?"

"Of course I'm sure," he insisted. "Bobby Hobbes knows a little something about surveillance, and I'd been watching every step that waiter took. I knew there was something hinky about him the second he stepped onto the balcony, my friend." He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "The real question is whether you're sure you're sure you smelled what you smelled."

It was a valid point. Jack hadn't noticed anything unusual about his own coffee, but he was so accustomed to working with a crack team that it hadn't initially occurred to him to question Hap's claim.

"I know what I smelled," Hap growled.

Mr. Millhouse picked up his coffee and took a deep breath. "It's just that I don't smell anything. And I'll have you know that I'm specially trained in olfactory detection."

"So's Jim," Otto broke in, wisely interfering before his partner blew his top. "He was an expert tracker when he was in the Rangers."

Snake seemed to find this amusing. "So much for your correspondence class, Hobbes."

"It wasn't a correspondence class, it was a seminar," his partner corrected testily.

"Detective Ellison is right," Daniel declared, sniffing at his coffee experimentally. He was holding the cup under his nose as carefully as if it were full of nitroglycerin. "I can smell it too."

Both Hap and Otto seemed shocked by this corroboration, but Mr. Millhouse remained dubious. "Oh, and I suppose you're specially trained in olfaction as well?"

Daniel raised his eyebrows, his lips wavering between a smile and a neutral purse. "Actually no," he corrected. "I'm just a coffee snob."

His lingering doubts about Rainier's discovery eliminated by Daniel's confirmation, Jack folded his arms, thinking hard. There was evidently a threat out there and he had to figure out the optimal means of eliminating it. His only weapon was a variety pack of alpha males, which amounted to six different breeds of thinking they were right. Still, somebody had to take charge. And it had to be done decisively.

"Hey," he muttered, nodding to Mr. Millhouse. "You ex-military?"

The agent nodded curtly. "Jarhead. Served in Desert Storm."

"Good," said Jack, "then let's get this underway, shall we? Someone tried to drug us. We need to know who, we need to know how, and we need to know if anyone else is a target. Now, half of us are military and I'm the ranking officer so I'll be taking charge."

"Well, what about those of us that are non-military?" Snake drawled, looking as infuriatingly smug about his defiance as his partner looked annoyed by it.

Jack narrowed his eyes. "Then I outrank you by even more than your partners, now don't I?" He took a deep breath. "Like I said, I'll be taking charge here. And if you don't like it, you can bite my ass."

This order did not go over well with Snake, who stood, pitting his full height against Jack's and beating him by a good two inches. Six if you counted the hair. He plunged his hands into the deep pockets of his butt-ugly corduroys. "Now wouldn't that be violating the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy?"

But before Jack could belt him one, his own partner gave him a hefty shove. "That's enough, Fawkes," he spat. "This man has fought and toiled and put his life on the line for this country and he deserves our respect." He whirled around and glared accusingly at Otto, who was utterly flabbergasted to find himself singled out. "Everyone's respect."

Otto raised his palms defensively. "Easy there, Vince Ricardo," he stammered. "What the hell did *I* do?"

"What's your team's field of expertise?" Jack asked the F&G agent, hoping to diffuse the situation before it turned ugly... uglier. No matter what you might say about the Marines, their rabid loyalty was a consistent and commendable trait. And Mr. Millhouse had it in spades. He hadn't impressed him much at first but he was beginning to grow on him.

"Principally surveillance and covert entry," he replied proudly, "but we also excel at property appropriation and hand-to-hand combat."

Jack nodded. This might actually work out. "Good," he said, "now listen up. We need to find out if this is the work of a few individuals or a network. I want you two to do a sweep of the workshop staff rooms to see if you can find anything. If that doesn't pan out, move on to the guest rooms. But make sure you're not seen."

"Believe me," said Snake dryly. "That won't be a problem."

The kid's cockiness worried him, but he hoped his concern was unfounded. "Don't let it be," he said. "Daniel and I will have a little talk with the Bride of Phil Donahue. We were all scheduled to spend the next several hours with her in the afternoon session and since she would have been the one to reap the benefits of our coffee-loosened tongues, we have to assume that she's involved. But we don't want to tip our hands yet. We'll make an excuse for the F&G team and then meet up with... uh..."

"Ellison and Sandburg," Daniel mumbled behind his hand.

"I know," Jack hissed back, irritated at being preemptively educated. "Alverson and Hamburg at 1400 hours. The she-beast is practically in love with Hamburg so that may give us an edge." He turned to Hap, who returned his gaze somewhat dubiously. "Does an hour give you enough time to check out the scene here? If you can find out how our coffee got poisoned while everyone else's was clean, it might give us some insight into who exactly we're up against."

"An hour isn't much," said Hap darkly, "but we'll do what we can."

"That's all any of us can do," Jack replied. "We just have to make sure that we do it damn well. Now let's get to work. We'll rendezvous in Room 126 at 1700." At this he turned and walked away, crossing the balcony with his most authoritative stride.

Daniel trotted to catch up with him. "For future reference," he said, "the cops are called Ellison and Sandburg, not Alverson and Hamburg."

Jack sighed. "Hamburg... Sandburg... Otto... Whatever."

There was a long pause as they ducked under some ferns and passed through the patio door into the lobby. "You named them after Simpsons characters, didn't you?" Daniel accused.

Jack winced and shrugged, reminded that the linguist knew him all too well. He wasn't about to incriminate himself by admitting the truth, but he was quite happy to softly hum. In his head, the words lilted along with the subtle tune. "Can I borrow a feeling? Would you lend me a jar of love?"

 

***

 

After the departure of the bossy colonel and his bafflingly well-educated colleague, the Fish and Game agents wasted little time in following suit. Without so much as a word of goodbye they strode from the patio, carrying themselves with a kind of brash casualness that did little to inspire confidence in their alleged expertise at covert operations. Blair watched them dubiously as they left, more than a little troubled by the fact that they were bickering about an episode of Gilligan's Island.

Their assignment was patently illegal, he noted, or at least he assumed it was. Canadian laws couldn't be *that* different than they were in the States… certainly not to the point that searching people's rooms without a warrant was an acceptable practice. Of course, he had no particular objection to bending the law - he and Jim had done it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. He was just a little taken aback that the colonel had given an overt order to do so.

But that was the military for you. They lived in their own little world of ethical ambiguity. Blair had a theory that one of the fundamental obstacles to world peace was the incongruity between the mindset of the modern day warriors and their civilian counterparts. This fissure of communication hampered the potency of nations that separated their social and confrontational leadership and the rationality of those that didn't. And a dictatorial military regime certainly wasn't the answer. There were some tasks that the military just had no business taking charge of, the current situation being a perfect example.

Blair grabbed a folding chair from a nearby table and turned it around backwards, straddling it and resting his arms and chin on the cool metal of its back. Jim was deeply engrossed in the various dishes scattered about their table, poking around for any hint of contamination beyond the coffee cups. He had already spent a good while making a thorough sweep of the patio, satisfying himself that theirs was the only group that had been drugged, and had returned to the table with added intensity, determined to find some hint of evidence that might lead them to the culprit. He had removed his jacket and his brow was furrowed with intense concentration but he didn't look otherwise put-out - at least no more than he usually did when someone was after them. This fact was both surprising and unsettling given that Jim had spent the entire morning at his most cantankerous. Blair studied his features closely, striving to comprehend this uncharacteristic stoicism.

"What?" Jim growled without looking up from the butter dish, which he was prodding skeptically with a fork. "I can tell that you're itching to say something, Sandburg, so out with it and let me work."

Blair drummed his fingers on the back of the chair and cleared his throat awkwardly. He seriously doubted that Jim was going to take this remark in the spirit it was intended but he carried on regardless. "I just think you rolled over a little easily on this, that's all."

As expected, that got his attention. The sentinel looked up sharply, eyes narrowed in the idiosyncratic manner he adopted whenever he was dead-set against allowing Blair to reason with him. "What?" It was an angry 'what.'

"On this investigation," Blair replied, countering Jim's ire with a correspondingly more confident and forceful tone. "You just shut up and let that O'Neill guy take charge of things. That isn't like you."

Jim sniffed and let his fork clatter into the butter dish, shifting his attention to the nearest coffee cup. "It's a military thing, Chief. You wouldn't understand. You don't get to be a Colonel unless you're a damn good leader. It's a high rank."

Oh good. It seemed the conversation had leapt over denial and gone straight into condescension. How efficient. Blair rolled his eyes, struggling to keep his defensive temper in check. "I know that, Jim. I watch M*A*S*H*."

"At one in the morning, I know." Jim carefully lifted the cup and looked underneath it before replacing it in the saucer. "The theme music wakes me up and it pisses me off."

Blair pursed his lips, sighing at this unneeded reminder that Jim was the world champion of 'Six degrees of what pisses me off.' He decided to try a different tactic. "Look," he said, forcing himself to keep eye contact with the side of Jim's head, "if we were staging a hostile takeover of the island I would have no problem taking orders from that guy. But what we're dealing with here is a *crime*. Don't you think that oh, say, a *criminal investigator* would be better suited to take the lead?"

The remark managed to temporarily divert Jim's eyes from the table. "This isn't about glory. It's about finding out what's going on."

"Right." Blair honestly couldn't see what part of his argument was failing to get through. "And you're the person that's best qualified to do that."

But Jim was unmovable. "Not necessarily." His expression was surprisingly earnest. "Something tells me that O'Neill can hold his own."

"Oh yeah? What's that?" Blair narrowed his eyes. This one ought to be good.

The sentinel sighed and looked out over the vista of the parking lot. "Jackson," he murmured at last.

"Jackson?"

"Jackson."

"Why? Because you've got a soft spot for brainy anthropologists?" Blair shook his head vehemently. "Jackson's even more ill-qualified to be a cop than I am."

"Probably so," admitted Jim, his lips creeping into a slight smile, "but he's also even more opinionated. And he's not afraid to tell his partner he's full of shit. Remember when O'Neill insisted that being an Eagle Scout counted as 'childhood counseling.'"

Despite his frustration Blair laughed, smiling that the memory of the abject seriousness on the colonel's face when he had made the claim. "Yeah. Jackson gave him the smack-down."

Jim gestured at Blair with his palm to emphasize the point. "Exactly. Jackson would never have let O'Neill get away with playing cop if he had no business doing it."

Blair shook his head uncertainly. "I don't know," he persisted. "Someone's trying to drug us. This could be a dangerous situation."

"Let me put it this way," said Jim, standing up and dusting off his hands before moving to a different part of the table. "Would you let some cop fly a plane through rough weather if there was already a perfectly good pilot in the cockpit?"

"Would I be *in* the plane at the time?"

"Sandburg…"

"Fine, fine, I see your point," he grumbled, wanting to curse Jim's dogged devotion to his hunches but having to allow that they were usually right. He sighed and begrudgingly resigned himself to losing the argument. "I'd only let the cop fly if I thought he was better than the pilot." He had initially intended to let the matter drop but after a moment he couldn't help but add, "But I seriously doubt that O'Neill is better than you."

Tearing his attention away from the remnants of the breadbasket, Jim looked up with an affectionate smile and Blair was gratified by this assurance that Jim appreciated his attempts to stand up for him, even if he couldn't be bothered to do it for himself. "If Jackson believes O'Neill is better," Jim said, "then he's at least competent enough not to botch the investigation. That's all that matters."

Blair still wasn't convinced, but he decided he had belabored the point long enough. "Okay," he conceded, "but just keep in mind whose fault it'll be if we get all drugged-up and talkative and wind up having to spend the rest of our lives in Canada because we're wanted in the States for divulging national secrets to terrorists."

His nose back in the coffee cup, Jim chuckled. "Chief, we don't know any national secrets."

"Maybe not, but we're all in this together now." He got up, shoved his chair back to the table it had come from, and wandered over to stand beside Jim. "With our luck, one of those Fish and Game guys will spill the beans on a secret government conspiracy for harvesting stem cells from American eagles or something."

Jim offered Blair a wry smile over his shoulder. "Good point. If anything goes wrong, it's Jackson's fault."

He chuckled in approval at their chosen scapegoat and sauntered over to lean against the railing, where he could enjoy the view and leave Jim to his detective work. But as his brain caught up with their banter, something struck him. There were government employees at every level at this workshop and yet only they had been drugged. There had to be *something* they knew that was valuable enough to risk committing a felony in a lodge full of state and federal agents, so what was it? Was it information about law-enforcement procedures in Cascade? Or something about Jim, himself? Maybe someone was out for specifics on the sentinel phenomenon... Alex Barnes or maybe Lee Brackett. Or the teamsters? "Why us, Jim?" he wondered aloud. "What do you think they're after?"

"I doubt we were the targets," Jim replied flatly, squinting up at the sun to gauge the time, despite the fact that he was wearing a perfectly good watch. "Our whole group had to be drugged if this operation was going to work - the information they're after is obviously valuable so they could hardly afford to keep any of us lucid. My guess is that O'Neill is the one they want. The Fish and Game boys won't know any more than we do."

"You don't buy my eagle stem cell theory? Or that terrorists might be after the secret locations of California's fish hatcheries?" Blair grinned, overwhelmingly relieved that for once they weren't up against someone with a personal vendetta against them. His career with Cascade P.D. had taught him to be thankful for even the most infinitesimal of blessings.

Apparently ill-disposed to give consequence to witty remarks, Jim went back to staring at his cup. After a few minutes he shook his head, the frustration evident in his features. "I don't get it. Everybody in the workshop was served coffee, and at least two other tables had theirs poured out of the same carafe as ours, but our cups were the only ones that were drugged. The waiter couldn't have slipped us anything: Hobbes was watching the guy like he was dating his kid sister."

"So maybe that's it," said Blair, snatching an empty cup from a nearby table and holding it up demonstratively. "Maybe the *cups* were drugged instead of the coffee. It's not that difficult to coat the inside of a container with a foreign substance. Assuming this sodium pentathol stuff is water soluble, the hot coffee would have pulled it right off the walls."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "Of course. Poison-tipped arrows work the same way: they're dipped in venom and allowed to dry. When they hit a human target, the toxins are drawn into his bloodstream. But they have a limited window of usefulness. After a day or so the poison flakes off and they have to be re-treated."

"Exactly," said Blair, "but in order to treat something as large as a coffee cup quickly you'd need a volatile fluid. Maybe if we can figure out what kind of liquid was used to coat the inside of the cups it can give us a time period. There should still be a residue, so see if you can smell anything else... something fairly common but prone to evaporate. Like rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover."

Closing his eyes, Jim lifted the cup and breathed in its aroma, his brow creasing in concentration. "No," he muttered at last. "Nothing."

"Come on, there has to be *something*," Blair insisted. "It's just masked by the stronger scents. Look, smell and taste are closely linked. See if you can use them cooperatively to sense anything else."

"I'm not putting this in my mouth, Sandburg. And keep it down, will you? There's a waiter coming this way."

Blair glanced up to gauge the waiter's position, but the only ones in the vicinity were clearing tables on the opposite side of the patio, far out of earshot. In an intriguing counterpoise to Jim's usual zone-out tendencies, it seemed that his other senses were becoming hypersensitive. It was an unusual, if not wholly unexpected, happenstance and Blair made a note to consider testing the direct and indirect coupling among Jim's senses. It was possible that, under the stimulus of conscious use, some combinations of senses served to enhance rather than suppress the others - like constructive as opposed destructive interference. This could be interesting. It had been a while since they had learned anything new about the nature of a sentinel's abilities.

He returned his attention to Jim, who continued to scrutinize the cold coffee with deep, measured breaths. His eyes remained closed but he was beginning to squeeze his right one shut with a little too much vehemence, a sure sign that he was getting a headache. "You don't have to drink it. Just try to combine your senses. Breathe in the scent and concentrate on the tastes that emerge on the back of your tongue... maybe it's something virtually odorless, like vodka. Drown out the coffee taste and think about vodka."

Jim emitted an ill-tempered snort. "Oh, I'm thinking about vodka all right."

"Funny, Jim, really. Hilarious. Now let's go. Sentinel time!"

"Can it, Darwin," Jim hissed, squeezing his eyes even tighter. "Did you *not* hear what I just said about the waiter?"

"There is no waiter," Blair assured him. "What you're hearing is just your other senses trying to keep up with the ones you're using. Now try again. If you can taste a few sugar granules in a cup of water, this should be a cake walk."

"Dammit, Sandburg!" Jim looked up with genuine anger in his eyes. He grabbed Blair's collar and directed his attention to the opposite side of the table, gesturing at it insistently.

Blair looked in the direction his partner had indicated and saw nothing but the unappealing remnants of lunch: tainted coffee and the half-eaten remains of an extremely dry apple tart. Someone had left a napkin wadded up on a plate and its edges flapped leisurely in the early afternoon breeze. Beyond it, the sun glinted off of a few dozen cars, many of which bore federal license plates.

The sentinel's anger swiftly shifted to confusion.

"There's no one there, Jim."

"But I could have sworn..."

"I'm telling you, it's your senses going into overdrive. Now let's get back to the coffee. This time, try isolating the scents and tuning them out, kind of like an olfactory white noise."

The sentinel's confusion swiftly shifted to annoyance.

"What?" Blair demanded as it became apparent that the annoyance was directed specifically at him.

"What the hell is the matter with you, Chief?" he shot, scowling. "You know damn well that I know what I'm doing, so why the sudden lecture on how to use my senses?"

"I wasn't lecturing, I was..." Blair paused and then offered an elaborate shrug. "Okay, I was lecturing. Sorry, man, I was just trying to help however I could. I really want us to figure this out."

Eyes narrowed, Jim folded his arms and looked at Blair expectantly. "Why?" he demanded. "Because it's personal? We've toughed it through worse situations than this without you turning into a school marm."

Blair opened his mouth to respond, his brain sifting through at least forty-six different obfuscations before he finally had to admit to himself that Jim wasn't going to buy any of them. "It's that O'Neill guy," he muttered at last. "He bugs me. I've been riding on the hope that we could figure the whole thing out by the rendezvous at two-o'clock hundred hours and kind of... you know... show him up." At Jim's amused expression, he narrowed his eyes. "I know, I know. It's incredibly childish. I can't help it: I had an overindulgent mother."

"Well sorry to burst your bubble of glory here, Chief, but we don't have much to go on. The only thing I'm picking up in that coffee is coffee and sodium pentathol. That's it."

"Nothing else?"

"What did I just say?"

"Okay, okay," said Blair, flashing his palms defensively. He frowned, drumming his hands against his thighs, and then it hit him. "That's it! They could have used water."

"Water." Unsurprisingly, Jim was skeptical. "Care to elaborate on that?"

Too inspired to be perturbed, Blair began to pace excitedly. "Instead of the volatile fluid I was talking about, they could have used water to coat the drug inside the cups. It would take a lot longer or require the use of an oven but it could be done."

Jim seemed to approve of the theory. "How long would it take?"

Blair shrugged. "Overnight if they used a mild heating element. A couple of days if not. Anything faster than that and they would risk denaturing the compound."

"So whoever did this couldn't have come in this morning." He slapped the table triumphantly and adopted that feral gleam in his eye that always accompanied the scent of suspect-blood. "We can get a copy of the guest register from the front desk. That should narrow the field."

At that moment, one of the lodge's assistant managers conveniently wandered onto the patio to hurry along the slow progress of the lunch clean-up crew and Jim waved him over. A well-placed flash of the badge and a sufficiently gruff demeanor sent the guy hoofing it to the lobby for the desired information.

Blair smiled at Jim, always sensibly appreciative of the efficacy of his macho posturing, and Jim smiled back with a tinge of something less complimentary. It was one of those classically Jim expressions that combined endearment with amused condemnation. "What?" Blair demanded.

"I can't believe you're fixated on O'Neill when Hobbes spent the entire morning glaring at you likes he wants to take a two-by-four to your head."

Blair shrugged, feeling moderately peeved that Jim should find his dislike of the colonel so amusing. "Hobbes doesn't bother me," he said earnestly. "It's not like I don't get that attitude from half the guys in Major Crimes. He's okay, even if he's a little skittish and over-medicated. And his partner, Darien, has got this fantastic, counter-culture attitude that I never thought I'd see in a federal agent. He must have climbed the bureaucratic ladder by means of some brilliant tactics of reverse-psychology."

"I don't like him," Jim declared. "He smells funny."

Something suddenly diverted Jim's attention then and his head snapped towards the vacant swath of patio across the table. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the area, eventually settling on the table itself. "Where's the other cup?" he demanded.

"What other cup?"

"The other cup. There were six of us at the table and I broke yours before you could use it. That should leave five cups behind but I only see four." He knit his brow and rose, stalking to the opposite side of the table and holding up an empty saucer as evidence. But before he could further explicate, he jerked his head towards the lobby doors, one of which was just swinging closed. He took a few steps and shivered.

"The air here is cool," he murmured, passing a bare arm through the tepid atmosphere. There was a strip of space about half a meter in width that raised goosebumps on his forearms. He took another tentative step forward and spread his fingers wide. "There's a trail of cold air leading back to the lobby."

Without further ceremony, Jim stretched out a hand and began striding purposefully towards the door. Blair was unsure what to make of this - after the way Jim's senses had been acting up he wasn't sure he could put stock in this purported trail. And even if it did exist he couldn't fathom what could have caused it or how it related to the attempted assault on their lucidity.

On the other hand, there was no arguing with Jim when he got this absorbed in something. Seeing little alternate recourse, Blair trotted after his partner, pausing only to exchange brief niceties with the needlessly sycophantic assistant manager and avail himself of the offered Xeroxed guest register. The man did not seem to appreciate the urgency of their departure, nor was he delighted by the fact that - after having been so adamant about its importance - Jim could not even be bothered to give the register a cursory glance. Blair waved back at him apologetically as they made their hasty retreat but the assistant manager merely glared daggers in return, making the anthropologist wonder whether he ought to have tipped him.

 

***

 

A smart-ass named O'Rourke once said, "Very little is known of the Canadian country since it is rarely visited by anyone but the Queen and illiterate sport fishermen." Well, Darien had yet to see the Queen and could attest to the fact that Hobbes was at least marginally literate, but he had to concede that his partner was one hell of a fisherman. After capitulating to Darien's superior knowledge of coconut radio technology, it had taken Hobbes about a New York microsecond to barge into the hotel kitchen, delve into a gaggle of identical-looking waiters and emerge from the throng dragging the one he was after by the collar.

The waiter - whom he had affectionately referred to as Zits during his scant appearances at lunch - couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen and if he wasn't scared enough to piss himself then he was a damn good actor. Darien looked on skeptically as Hobbes hustled the gangly adolescent down the sparsely populated corridor, clutching him by the scruff of his collar. "Come on, Hobbes," he chided. "You want to ease up? He's just a kid."

"Kid," Hobbes scoffed. "Ha. You should know better than that by now, Fawkes. You've been to Camp Kiddie Chrysali with its bottled water fountain of youth and its souped-up Flintstones vitamins of perfect health and its genetic... geneticizing. This guy could be the Official's big brother for all we know."

Darien shrugged. Frankly, he thought Hobbes was full of crap on his sinister waiter theory but he didn't care enough to bother arguing with him about it. Either the "suspect" would pan out or he wouldn't and there was going to be no reasoning with Hobbes until they found out one way or the other.

Despite the wealth of crack law-enforcement specialists loitering around the lobby and hallways, no one seemed to take much notice of the stocky, bald federal agent shoving a teenager in front of him like a shopping cart. Presumably this was another example of the 'act like you know what you're doing and no one will bother you' school of behavior, which was almost as effective as being invisible. They made it back to their room without incident and Hobbes planted good old Zits in a chair, riled up to grill him with maniacal fervor, while Darien flopped onto one of the beds, trying to estimate how long it would take his partner to simmer down. The kid's bony knees were knocking against the underside of the little writing table as he trembled before the Wrath of Hobbes.

"Oh, you're good," Hobbes practically purred, pacing in front of the table and wearing his bona fide 'good cop' smile. "Very good. You managed to mickey our coffees without me noticing. That takes skill. Talent. A certain nimbleness of..."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Zits insisted, his speech hampered by the remnants of a head cold. He took in a snuffling breath and with it about a gallon of snot. "Please. I told you before, I didn't drug anyone."

"Oh really?" Hobbes gasped, inflecting his voice in mock-apologetic surprise. "Well then who do you think drugged us? The brave patriots of the Air Force? The law-giving cops, to whom we offer daily thanks for the safety of our city streets?" He paused and lifted an eyebrow skeptically. "My partner? Do you think my partner drugged us? Was *he* plotting to sell our valuable federal secrets to the Ruskies?"

Zits emitted another disgusting sniffle. "No?" he hazarded, his voice cracking like a Faberge egg in a bowling alley.

"That's right," Hobbes replied. "Because he is a morally upstanding federal agent and would never do such a thing. Would you, Fawkes?"

Darien lay on his back, tossing and catching an apple he had stolen from the lobby. "Nope," he confirmed.

"You see?" With a sickly-sweet smile, Hobbes gestured at him instructively.

"The Russians don't have any money anyway," he added as he caught the apple and rewarded himself with a big, juicy bite.

Hobbes failed to appreciate the humor of this remark and turned sourly back to his victim to continue the interrogation.

With the soothing background noise of his partner's rapid-fire questions, Darien took another bite of his apple and looked up at the ceiling, taking stock of yet another assignment that - surprise, surprise - was billed as innocuous and wound up as a potential deathtrap. Much though he firmly believed that Zits was as innocent and genuinely pathetic as he appeared, he had to admit that Hobbes was probably right to assume that Chrysalis was behind the assault. The entire table had been drugged but that was doubtlessly a matter of thoroughness; it was all too obvious that Darien had been the true target. After all, it wasn't like a couple of mid-level city cops would know anything worth selling. The same went for the military desk jockeys, although he supposed it was possible that they might know some missile launch codes or something. Maybe those were the guys that had weathered the latter part of the cold war in a tiny bunker in North Dakota, fingers poised over big, shiny red buttons.

And speaking of shiny, the sun was beginning to stream through the west-facing window of their room. It was glinting annoyingly off of Hobbes' head.

"Still not talking, eh?" He uttered the words as if, in some perverse way, his subject's reticence pleased him. "Well, then. We'll just have to give you a taste of your own sinister medicine." He hooked his thumbs in his belt and nodded slyly.

"You mean my asthma inhaler?" Zits squawked, squirming uncomfortably against the chair's cheap upholstery. The fabric was tacky, and not in the way Darien enjoyed, like with giant cow skull belt buckles or dogs playing poker or janitor outfits. It was tacky like he always imagined Hobbes' grandmother's house might have been - with heavily brocaded, mismatched flower patterns and entire rooms designed around the theme of small woodland creatures or fruit.

"On the contrary, my friend, I mean the medicine of poetic justice." Hobbes smiled tersely and looked over his shoulder at Darien, jerking his head towards the room's tiny bathroom. When Darien rolled his eyes he said, "Fawkes," and strode officiously towards the indicated conference area.

Darien sighed and heaved himself off of the bed, his hands still sticky from the apple.

"You gotta go back and get that hinky coffee," Hobbes declared as Darien pushed past him to the sink so he could rinse off his hands. "If this little punk thinks he can get away with using a truth serum on Bobby Hobbes he's got another think coming."

"You're going to *drug* him?" Darien wasn't sure whether to be amused or appalled by Hobbes' adamant conviction. "Don't you think that's a little extreme?"

"Extreme actions warrant extreme re-actions, my friend. And I will not stand idle when people are trying to steal classified information already bought and paid for by Uncle Sam."

Darien sighed and slid his eyes to the mirror, just to make sure everything was still in order. His hair looked particularly good that day.

"Do it, Fawkes." Hobbes stood with his arms folded and his feet spread at slightly more than shoulder width. Between his titanium skull, his low center of gravity, and his stubborn streak the size of outer Siberia he was the ultimate immovable object.

"But we've only been gone like ten minutes," Darien hedged, still hunting for a loophole. "Those cops will still be there."

"Then go Casper and get it out from under their noses," Hobbes insisted, his voice muted and impatient. "We've been entrusted with the vital mission of solving this crime and that's exactly what we're going to do."

Although his initial instinct was to object, Darien kept silent and turned grimly towards the door, knowing full well that Hobbes was impossible to argue with at this juncture. Against his better judgment he decided to humor his partner and go fetch the coffee, holding out hope that Hobbes might come to his senses before he got back.

With a plaintive sigh, pointedly directed at his partner, Darien slipped out of the room and strolled towards the lobby, his mind returning to the not-so-idle thoughts of those that so tirelessly plotted against him. Chrysalis. Arnaud. Even the federal government at times. Still, he and Hobbes always managed to thwart their enemies' unnecessarily convoluted plans and this time would be no different.

Of course, the presence of the military and the cops was going to put a crimp in their otherwise silky-smoove style. It was going to be difficult to operate under their radar, particularly if the situation got ugly, but at least he could be thankful that Corporal "I've got the best sidekick" McBossyPants had arranged things such that, at least for the afternoon, he didn't have to work with an audience.

Turning a corner, Darien saw that there were a number of men milling about in the corridor that led to the lobby and decided it would be prudent to go invisible somewhere with fewer potential witnesses. He spotted the little alcove that housed the vending machines and ducked inside, covering himself with a smooth sheen of quicksilver and vanishing from view. The world took on a metallic pall.

He was just about to swing back into the hall when the previously mentioned uber-sidekick popped into view, ice bucket in hand. His escape route temporarily blocked, Darien leaned against the wall and contemplated the newcomer - Daniel was his name - as he struggled with the unresponsive ice machine. The low rumble in its depths promised that it held the sought-after goods but was simply unwilling to part with them. The rumble repeatedly surged and ebbed, and the machine trembled tantalizingly without yielding its store - a more wickedly Sisyphusian torture device would never be invented.

Daniel let go of the lever, pursed his lips, and counted to five before trying again. This simple gesture - a culmination of frustration and subsequent deliberate release - was a familiar one to Darien and he marveled at the number of ways in which this man reminded him of Kevin. It wasn't just his smarts, it was his whole manner: little gestures that brought the past vividly to mind. When the ice finally came tumbling into its container Daniel hissed out a celebratory, "Yes!"

Oh yeah, Darien thought. This guy was a hell of a lot like his brother. Only somehow he suspected that Daniel had a lot more issues. Aside from being dead, that was.

"Daniel! Get in here!" Barked a voice from down the hall. Corporal Whatsisname, no doubt. What *was* his name again?

Daniel frowned and drew his eyebrows together, the smug expression inspired by his victory over the ice machine instantly forgotten in his annoyance at being bellowed at. "Just a second, Jack."

Aha. Jack. That was it. Darien smiled. He was a damn good detective.

Apparently determined to take the stingy ice machine for all it was worth, Daniel filled his bucket to the brim before turning briskly and heading back into one of the quieter branches of the hallway.

Darien paused as he watched the other man's departure, torn by indecision. His stupid mission for Hobbes took him one way while his curiosity coaxed him the other. Neither choice was likely to be helpful or productive so there was no objective way to decide between them.

Naturally, since Hobbes wasn't there to argue his case, Darien's curiosity won handily and he trotted down the corridor to fall in step with the archaeologist. The door to room 126 was hanging open and he increased his pace so he could slip through it first and thereby avoid the risk of having the door slammed in his face, or worse yet, *on* it. He sidestepped into the tiny bathroom with plenty of time to spare.

"Did you get him?" asked Daniel, closing the door and sliding his bucket of hard-won ice onto the vanity, where it was almost certain to melt, fulfilling its destiny to be tragically forgotten.

Jack shook his head and scowled, casting a brief, disparaging look at the satellite phone and then pressing into the side of his face. "In a meeting. And everyone else I've asked for is off-world. Doesn't anyone stay on Earth anymore?"

Unfazed by this bizarre statement, Daniel just shrugged and started unpacking his suitcase. But he only managed to hang up a single pair of khakis, which were incidentally identical to the ones he was wearing, before he paused and said, "You really think it's the N.I.D.?"

"Who else?" Jack scoffed. "If it were some kind of Goa'uld infiltration I'm sure we would have been tipped off by the end-of-weekend seminar on getting in touch with your inner symbiote."

Darien bit his lip and stared at the two men, neither of whom seemed to think that their discussion was particularly odd or out of place. He wondered whether it was some kind of outlandish military slang or if he was just losing his mind. He made a mental note to ask Hobbes about it later and then sagged against the wall as he realized how pathetic it was to have to ask *Hobbes* whether he was crazy. Well, at least the man was an expert. Meanwhile, Daniel was unpacking his socks as if nothing at all was amiss while Jack seethed impatiently into his phone.

A moment later his eyebrows flew up as a crackle of static exploded from the receiver. He held it at arms length until the noise died down and then once again embedded it in the side of his face. "Lewis?" he shouted at the phone. "Lewis is that you? It's O'Neill. O'Neill. Oooooo. Neeeeeeiiiiillllllll. Right." Another burst of static made him wince. "Look, I need you to get the General out of his meeting." A pause and then anger. "Of course it's important! Hello? Lewis? Dammit!" He flung the phone onto his bed like it was a rotten fish.

More calm than his companion, Daniel lifted his eyebrows. "Problems?"

"The damn battery's dead," he snapped. "And of course I forgot to bring the charger. Do you have yours?"

"Yes, but just the cellular. Sam recently appropriated my satellite phone for spare parts." Without looking up from his bag he fished around in one of the side pockets, found the phone, and tossed it over his shoulder.

O'Neill - a name that suited him better than Jack, Darien decided - snatched it deftly out of the air and began to dial, pausing after only five or six numbers. "No signal," he declared, holding up the phone with disgust.

Daniel frowned. "It's been weak since we left Cascade," he said, "but I was definitely getting a signal earlier so there must be a cell tower on the island somewhere."

The older man thought for a moment and then nodded decisively. "We'll hit the roof."

"You mean metaphorically, or..."

"Daniel."

"Jack."

O'Neill snorted and grabbed his jacket, making a line for the door so rapidly that Darien nearly fell into the toilet in his struggle to get out of the way. Daniel was fast on his heels and Darien barely had a chance to recover and get a hand in the door before it closed behind them.

As they fell into a brisk pace down the corridor, O'Neill lowered his voice. "It's a good thing you and... Ellison," he paused, scowling at the fact that Daniel had corrected him on the name before he'd had a chance to mess it up on his own.

Definitely Kevin, Darien mused, remembering being plagued by a similarly merciless know-it-all-ness throughout his childhood. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for O'Neill and his no-doubt continually harrowed existence.

The disgruntled corporal cleared his throat. "As I was saying, it's a good thing you two smelled the sodium pentathol before any of us drank it. We could have been in serious trouble here."

"Are you kidding?" Daniel laughed. "I didn't smell a thing."

Darien narrowly avoided slamming into O'Neill from behind as he stopped abruptly to gape at his companion in disbelief.

It took Daniel a few moments to realize that he no longer had company. When he finally noticed O'Neill's absence he turned around, seeming genuinely surprised by his partner's reaction.

"You didn't smell anything?" O'Neill repeated, his tone both incredulous and infuriated. His narrowed eyes demanded an immediate explanation and the wrinkles in his forehead appended the rider that the explanation had to be in writing and duly notarized.

Daniel crossed his arms, his determined stance conveying that he would not be provoked into walking back down the hall to rejoin his straggling companion. "No. I thought you knew that."

O'Neill scowled. Again. "How would I know that?"

"Because I gave you that *look*."

"Exactly. It was the 'just trust me' look."

"Right."

"And shouldn't that imply that you're - oh - not *lying*?" O'Neill had his arms spread wide, as if supplicating himself before the gods of warped logic that had overcome his partner. For some reason, the scene reminded Darien of an "I Love Lucy" episode. Daniel had some 'splaining to do.

"Not necessarily," he corrected calmly. "It could also imply that I'm lying for a good reason."

"And what good reason would that be?"

"So we wouldn't spend an hour arguing over whether or not Ellison smelled what he smelled."

"But what if he didn't smell it?" Jack demanded, finally giving in and stomping his way up the hall. This whole thing could be a wild goose chase."

Daniel raised his eyebrows and smiled. "Oh, he smelled it, all right." There was something in his expression that hinted at the bridled joy of discovery. Of confidence in the mystical.

And suddenly the man seemed nothing at all like Darien's brother. Despite all of their other similarities, Kevin could never have pulled off the quirky smile and leap-of-faith combo as effectively as Daniel just had.

But while Darien was utterly taken in by this assurance, O'Neill was far from credulous. "How can you be so sure?"

The question sparked a gleam of excitement in Daniel's eyes, causing O'Neill to sigh with unenthused anticipation of the impending lecture. "I've noticed certain aspects of his behavior that remind me of references to a mythical tribal figure I once encountered on a dig in South America," he explained. "In Quechua the word is 'Suyaylla.' Literally it means 'guarding' or 'waiting' but it was used as a sort of honorific for certain individuals. The legend captivated me for quite some time and I even dabbled with the theory that the Suyaylla's 'magical' powers were alien in origin. But after learning the history of the Stargate I realized that the timing was incongruent with the occupation of the Goa'uld. In all probability it's just an extremely rare genetic trait. And if Ellison has it I seriously doubt he realizes it."

After weathering this spiel with mildly checked impatience, O'Neill cut him off with a wave of his hand before he could continue. "Fascinating as all of this is, howabout you bottom line it. Is he a good guy?"

Daniel looked off to the side and then back at O'Neill as if asking an invisible person - some *other* invisible person - why the hell the guy was asking him this. "Yes."

"Good enough for me. Let's go."

They continued through the lobby, whose jostling post-lunch crowd was making it increasingly difficult for Darien to keep pace, and made their way to the elevator. It was already crammed with people but O'Neill was working on a renewed determination to get to the roof and call his commanding officer. He slapped a palm on the side of the elevator door, holding it open as Daniel wedged himself into the car, much to the chagrin of its occupants. They were mostly white-collar yes-men, too timid to stand up to the big bad army man, like an entire collector's set of multi-cultural Eberts action figures. One of them hesitantly pointed to the sign listing the elevator's maximum capacity and O'Neill offered him a deeply insincere smile of thanks as he shoved his way in, grunting "top floor," at the Asian Eberts, whose middle-aged gut and J.C. Penny suit coat were being mashed against the panel of buttons.

For Darien, there was no hope. He was generally cautious of elevators anyway, but he knew that with so many people there was no way he could make the trip without being detected. He briefly considered taking the stairs and heading them off at the roof but, despite his curiosity about the purported alien technology and magical cops, he ultimately decided against it. O'Neill and Daniel's conversation had been so rapid fire and their tone so casual that he still couldn't bring himself to take their words at face value, at least not without consulting Hobbes.

And speaking of Hobbes, he was probably becoming pretty agitated right about now. Either that or he was telling poor Zits his life story. Either way, Darien decided the most merciful game plan was to get back to playing invisible-poison-coffee-delivery-boy. He wove through the lobby's crowd and out onto the patio, where Curly and the Magic Cop were hunched over a coffee cup.

Everything seemed normal enough until he arrived at the table, at which point the situation just barely avoided a trip to hell. Darien's smug complacency quickly degenerated into panic as Ellison leapt out of his chair and pointed directly at him. He looked down at himself in horror, thinking that maybe his concentration had slipped and a random limb had un-quicksilvered, but quickly determined that nothing was amiss. Ostensibly invisible, he found himself deeply unsettled by the way the big cop was glaring at him like he couldn't see through him.

Darien's fears were quickly alleviated, however, when he heard Curly say, "There's no one there, Jim." This seemed to satisfy Ellison as well: despite being visibly nonplussed, he calmly reclaimed his seat and went back to doing whatever it was that detectives did.

Once he was sure their attention was sufficiently diverted, Darien surreptitiously quicksilvered a coffee cup - the one situated as far as possible from the two cops. Still rattled by Ellison's reaction to his arrival, he was tempted to just take the coffee and get the hell out of there but he figured that as long as he was there he ought to see if he could learn anything interesting.

After a few minutes of eavesdropping, he began to suspect that Daniel might be on to something with that legendary magical guy thing that was impossible to pronounce but sounded vaguely like, "Smell you later." Ellison got in an argument with Curly over what he was and was not able to smell, which was kind of sad actually, and then they argued about it some more, which was even sadder. But while their discussion seemed to confirm the theory he had overheard, Darien decided that it severely decreased the likelihood that the work Daniel and O'Neill did was as X-Files as it sounded. Anyone who thought Supersmell was a fascinating magical power couldn't possibly have seen anything as cool as an alien.

Amidst the bickering, he did manage to glean some information about the case, but it was nothing that the cops weren't going to share with them anyway. The greatest prize was in hearing Curly bitch about O'Neill.

As much as he was enjoying the gossip-gathering, enough was enough and Darien decided that his snooping had seen the extent of its usefulness. He was just about to turn and walk away when he was delayed by the sound of Curly referring to him by name.

"His partner, Darien, has got this fantastic, counter-culture attitude that I never thought I'd see in a federal agent. He must have climbed the bureaucratic ladder by means of some brilliant tactics of reverse-psychology."

Darien smirked. The hyperactive flower-child might be totally off-base I-man-wise but at least he was perceptive enough to appreciate some of his finer qualities. He earmarked Curly as a confirmed ally, something that the man's distaste for O'Neill had already led him to suspect.

"I don't like him," Ellison snarled, crunching up his nose like the superior bastard he was. "He smells funny."

Despite himself, Darien huffed in affront and Ellison's head immediately snapped up, eyes narrowed. He leapt to his feet, glaring in rapt paranoia at the space Darien currently occupied and looked as if he were poised to bound across the table and tackle him, sight unseen. Ellison was a very large man with a very short temper. His face reddened and his nostrils flared. Clearly, this was Darien's cue to depart.

He edged his way along the balcony, careful to move as silently as he could, and slipped past a stuffy-looking assistant manager who was rushing through the open door. Once in the lobby he made no pretense at etiquette, shoving past surprised patrons and cheesy polo-shirt-wearing workshop staff in his urgency to escape.

The instant he emerged into the unobstructed space of the corridors, he ran.

 

***

 

Jack was in one of those foul but deeply witty moods that made Daniel question whether he was the colonel he loved to hate arguing with or the friend he hated to love arguing with. He had listened with indifferent acceptance to the litany of clues that had led Daniel to believe that Ellison was a Suyaylla - the way a man across the room who was tapping the table with a pencil during the morning workshop had driven him nearly apoplectic with irritation, the way he had become engrossed with what appeared to be a televised basketball game from more than a hundred yards away, the way he had been unable to even feign tolerance of the admittedly over-salted soup course at lunch. These little behavioral clues had been as intriguing to Daniel as they were, apparently, mind-bogglingly boring to Jack. But that was Jack for you.

And after all this, he was still harping on the fact that Daniel had lied about smelling garlic in his coffee. After a lengthy debate on the roof, Jack had curtly demanded to be provided with a "cheat sheet" delineating all of his facial expressions and their precise interpretations. Daniel just barely bit back a retort asking whether he wanted hand gestures to be included as well.

Now they walked in silence, wending their way down a back stairwell and bracing themselves for another encounter with Barbara, the overly-enthusiastic workshop leader. While the afternoon session promised to be at least slightly more tolerable in the absence of Hobbes and his incessant interruptions and self-affirming psycho-babble, he could think of very few less-appealing ways to spend several hours. Part of Daniel's brain favored the option of drowning out Barbara's insipid and condescending advice and spending the afternoon reciting million-year-old poetry to himself. Such an expenditure of his time would be reasonably pleasant and maximize the probability of maintaining his sanity, and was therefore highly advisable.

But another part of him couldn't help but want to speak up against the absurdity of the process. Drawing from his training in the piranha-infested waters of academia, it was a great temptation to pay as close attention as possible to the hollow mantras of corporate team-building, the better to equip himself to eviscerate false premises and lay them bare. Daniel recognized that this was not a particularly attractive aspect of his personality but he couldn't really help it. Violence begets violence, and his life in the ivory tower had been nothing if not abusive. Few of his lectures had been met with anything but the lash of disdain and he felt strangely compelled to dole out torture in return. The difference, of course, was that those who had opposed his theories had done so out of closed-mindedness and want of understanding while his acrimony towards their Communication Counselor was derived from a lack of respect. He wondered what would happen if he asked her to define the word, "synergy."

Of course, if Jack was right about Barbara and she was the one who had drugged their coffee, the session was going to go quite differently than she had planned. In a way, Daniel kind of hoped that she *was* an N.I.D. plant. At least that way he wouldn't have to face the grim prospect that the woman put as much faith in her nonsensical jargon as she appeared.

He took a deep breath and glanced over at Jack, whose face was stony, no doubt from running through tactical scenarios in his head. For some reason, Daniel felt like the preparation was excessive. Intellectually he knew that if the N.I.D. was involved it was a potentially dangerous situation but something about it seemed off, somehow, like it screamed of rank amateurism. It just seemed so obvious that Barbara was in league with whomever had tried to drug them that the assumption had to be either incorrect or indicative of the fact that their foes were significantly short of formidable.

Of course, he reminded himself, were it not for Ellison's abilities they would never have known that anything was amiss. The Suyaylla's presence had managed to turn a subtle plan into an obvious one and it would be remiss to squander that advantage by underestimating their opponents in return.

As they rounded the stairs past the second floor, Jack got out his cell phone, looked at it irritably, and shoved it back into his pocket. "We're down to one bar," he griped, the vitriol in his voice declaring that whomever was responsible for the inadequate distribution of Canadian cell towers was his arch-nemesis of the week. "At this point it's a crap shoot whether Hammond will even be able to get through."

"Don't background checks take more than three minutes anyway?" Daniel asked, stifling a grin at the sarcastic grimace that came in response. "I don't think the General is trying to call us back just yet."

"I'm speaking generally, Daniel," Jack huffed. "And my concern is for both of our sanity. If we're going to be locked away in a breakfast nook with the clown college version of Sally Jesse Raphael I'd like to explore every possible escape route, thank you."

"So what are we supposed to do when we see her?" Daniel inquired, making the mental note that all attempts at humor on his part were likely to be ignored for the rest of the day. "Should we act like the drugs are taking effect?"

Jack sniffed. "Give it a little more time," he said. "Since she'll think we ingested it she'll expect us to be a little suggestible but otherwise normal. About fifteen minutes from now is when it would have hit. If she hasn't already given herself away by then we can lure her in with some Shakespeare."

Since Jack was obviously not referring to recitations in iambic pentameter, Daniel decided to request more explicit instructions. "And what exactly should that behavior be like? My career prior to the SGC offered surprisingly little exposure to interrogatory chemical compounds."

"It's kind of like being drunk," he replied. "Pretend you've had half a beer."

"Funny, Jack."

"Yeah, I thought so."

When they got down to the private dining room that was to serve as the venue for their more "intimate" afternoon counseling session, Barbara was already waiting for them. She had touched up her make-up and changed into a rhinestone leisure suit, making her look even more like a caricature than she had in the morning.

"Well hello, gentlemen," she crooned. "Did you have a fulfilling lunch experience?"

"Just peachy," said Jack, swinging into the chair across from her. Daniel took his seat behind him, curious about what approach his friend was planning to use to make her crack.

She smiled to reveal a row of yellowed teeth, smudged with garish red lipstick. "Well that's just wonderful," she declared with appalling condescension before widening her eyes and adopting a sterner, more reprimanding tone. "I hope you've both fortified yourselves with plenty of food and beverages because what we're going to be discussing this afternoon is going to require all the resources of your spiritual energy."

"Oh really," Daniel replied with aggressive disinterest. He was fairly certain that all of his spiritual energy was going to be preoccupied with quelling his urges to verbally crucify this woman. "And what kind of gem-like teamwork-enabling pointers will you be offering us?"

Her face darkened as she leaned forward, the ominousness of her expression adding about fifteen years to her already poorly-aged countenance. "This afternoon we shall be discussing the concept of Fear and its role in contentment sabotage. Fear is a devious internally-sustained opponent. It can be a very powerful anti-motivator."

"Well, thanks for your concern but we cope with fear just fine," Jack said coldly, obviously annoyed by her melodramatic scare-tactics. "We're in a dangerous business. We're used to it."

"Of course you are," she averred, her heavily-lined eyes wide and earnest, "and that makes you particularly susceptible to Fear's most insidious influences: those that usurp your self-power by distracting you with matters beyond your control. You yourself may not fear death, but what about your loved ones? Are you confident that they will be well cared for if the unthinkable should happen?"

Jack's features were hard, and Daniel could tell that he was sizing the woman up, hunting among her words for their intended meaning - was her question one of therapeutic concern or was it an underlying threat? "Not applicable," he said. "My team and I *are* our loved ones. If I go, they're probably not far behind."

Barbara frowned, her thick eyelashes fluttering in sickening slow motion as she evaluated Jack's words in return. "And this doesn't trouble you?"

"No, actually, I find it rather comforting," he shot back casually. His gaze flitted sideways and fell upon Daniel, who cocked an eyebrow, not really sure to what degree he was joking.

Daniel responded with a tight smile, clearing his throat a small, awkward cough. "And we appreciate that. Really," he returned.

Jack gave a barely-audible snort and returned his gaze to Barbara. "We all just *hate* delivering eulogies," he explained.

Obviously at a complete loss as to how to respond, Barbara was momentarily stunned into silence - apparently she did not often encounter clients who claimed such indifference towards the well-being of their loved ones as well as themselves. Thwarted, she looked around the table uncertainly until her eyes settled upon the large carafe that had been placed in the center, ringed by an array of cups. "Can I offer you gentlemen some coffee?" she inquired, her voice easily eighteen decibels too enthusiastic.

Daniel pursed his lips. "Thanks," he said, trying and failing to muster up a shred of sincerity. "We've had some."

"At lunch?" she asked pointedly. "You were able to drink your fill?"

"Yep," Jack replied, patting his stomach with exaggerated relish. "Guzzled it right down."

Failing to perceive the suddenly non-antagonistic shift in Jack's attitude towards her, the woman relaxed visibly. "Well, good," she purred, dropping her eyes momentarily to the table. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"Oh, we loved it," Jack assured her, "although I can't say the same about that other poor bastard..."

She cut him off. "'Bastard' is a *taking* word," she chided. "We prefer to use *giving* words."

"What?" Jack snorted. "Like 'philanthropist?'"

Surprised, Daniel raised his eyebrows and looked at Jack in amusement.

Jack looked back at him and scowled at his expression. "Oh, stop acting so shocked, Daniel. I do know how to read, you know. It's not like I never heard of a 'book' before you came along."

"I never said you hadn't." He held his gaze steady.

After a long pause Jack mumbled, "Okay, fine. I got it from my word-a-day calendar."

Daniel hid a smile and returned his attention to Barbara, who looked utterly perplexed by the exchange. For a woman who allegedly specialized in counseling two-man teams to strengthen their work relationships, she was appallingly unschooled in the concept of lighthearted rapport.

"You were speaking of some more unfortunate individual?" she prompted. As she spoke the final two words, she waved her hand rhythmically, drawing attention to the politically correct way of saying, 'poor bastard.'

"Oh yeah," Jack said, leaning forward meaningfully. He clasped his hands and kept his eye-contact fiercely penetrating. "It was that Sandburg kid. He got sick - some kind of weird chemical allergy or something."

Her face fell. "What?!" she stammered.

Jack's lips barely twitched into a smile. If her fixation on the coffee hadn't made it obvious enough, it was now undeniable that he was on the right track. Daniel had to hand it to him - true to form, he had pinpointed this woman's weakness and gone straight for the jugular. "Something didn't sit well," he continued. "The kid's been barfing his guts out since we finished lunch. His partner's in the john with him, holding his hair."

Barbara was absolutely crestfallen. She blanched beneath her heavily caked foundation and the remorse on her face was pathetically transparent. Though unquestionably guilty, she couldn't possibly be working for the N.I.D. She was far, far too incompetent in her ruse.

Yet this simple fact posed far more questions than it answered. Anyone with a sufficiently high clearance to know that he and Jack were from the SGC, or even that they had information worth obtaining, would have enough resources to hire someone who knew what they were doing to extract that information. So what, precisely, did this woman know about them? And what was she hoping to achieve?

As Daniel pondered these thoughts, Jack continued to dangle the noose in front of the miserable workshop counselor, who was fast-approaching the point of nervous hysteria. "Oh, but I'm sure Sandburg will be fine," he assured her, flashing a triumphant look. "He and Ellison should be back at any moment. That is, of course, unless he takes a turn for the worse, in which case this lodge will be looking at some serious charges of criminal negligence," he paused, taking his time to assemble an evil smile, "or, god forbid, manslaughter."

"Manslaughter?"

"Manslaughter. Unless of course someone poisoned his coffee deliberately, in which case it would be Murder One. With extra frosting on top because he's a cop."

She took in a hitching breath and a tear emerged from the corner of her eye, drawing a wobbly streak of black down the side of her face. An ineffectual attempt to wipe it away resulted only in the accumulation of flesh-tone make-up on the tips of her nails. Rolling his eyes at the spectacle, Jack offered her a wadded-up but evidently unsoiled Kleenex that he fished out of his jeans' pocket.

Several moments passed before she obligingly whispered, "Dear lord, what have I done?"

"That," said Jack with the air of a Russian master saying, 'checkmate,' "is exactly what we'd like to know."

 

***

 

The trail of cold air led them on a winding trajectory to the back stairwell and from there to an obscure corridor on the second floor. Jim had had some difficulty in the lobby, where the body heat of the crowd had blurred the trail, but once in the side-corridors following it was almost laughably easy. He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for or what kind of phenomenon could possibly produce such a trail but he was certain that it was important. The manifestation of the phantom waiter and the disappearance of the coffee cup had occurred in direct conjunction with the appearance of the frigid air, and he wasn't about to chalk it up to coincidence.

Blair was typically argumentative at first, so fixated on solving the crime before O'Neill and Jackson that he was ready to overlook the opportunity of investigating something that could provide them with real answers. He had claimed his dislike for O'Neill as the origin of his hyperactive motivation but Jim rather doubted that this was an honest assessment, theorizing instead that his partner felt threatened by the presence of a second genius in the company. The concept of Territorial Imperative had shown up to harass them yet again and for once it was Blair that it was biting on the ass.

Jim had found that as a general rule one anthropologist was about one too many in normal social situations. And two anthropologists? That was about six too many. He was sure that Blair recognized this too and Jim wondered with grim amusement whether he would be willing to admit to his defensive response. After having been subjected to years of accusations of projection and displacement at the hands of his partner, he was very much looking forward to calling him out on that when he had the chance.

But Blair's issues weren't what was on trial here, regardless of how badly they needed to be addressed. After an abbreviated haranguing he had thankfully given up the argument that the trail of cold air was all in Jim's head and allowed him to follow it in peace. As they wove their way through the maze of corridors Blair had trailed along quietly, flipping through the registration records he had gotten from the manager.

"I think we're on to something here, Jim," he whispered, as if speaking at a normal conversational volume would disrupt Jim's ability to use his sense of touch. "All but a few pairs of workshop attendees came in this morning and the only staff member to check in early is our very own Sharing Module Coordinator. She arrived on the island with her husband a few days ago."

"That's great, Chief," Jim said, wondering partway into a side corridor and then changing his mind and retracing his steps to rediscover the trail. "That would give her plenty of time to steal and drug a set of the lodge's cups. And I have to agree with O'Neill that she's the most likely suspect. This case might be a little more open and shut than we're used to." He took a few more steps and then paused, focusing on the sensation of the cold air against his skin. It was getting colder, which meant - ironically - that they were getting warmer.

He started up again, advancing past several more doors until the trail veered suddenly to the right and then stopped. A glint of light on the floor caught his eye and he knelt to pick up the flakes of a silvery substance. It, too, was cold and it crumbled between his fingers like dried newspaper.

There was no question that the trail had come to an end and he gestured for Blair to keep quiet, warding him back against the wall. Jim rose and eyed the door in front of him, leaning cautiously against the wall where it met the outside of the frame. He heard a dull rumble of voices from inside and extended his hearing to listen, trying to filter out the rasping sound of Blair searching frantically through his stack of papers, most likely endeavoring to match the room number to a name.

As Jim intensified his concentration, the muffled sounds on the other side of the door resolved themselves into words that spilled forth furiously, as if the speaker was in a state of mild panic.

"... and the guys from the Air Force were spouting out all kinds of random crap, using weird words and talking about traveling to different planets and something called a 'stargate.' I think they do some kind of work with aliens." The voice sounded familiar but Jim couldn't be positive about the identity of its owner. After all, the guy he was thinking of never seemed to open his mouth for anything but smart-ass comments and it was tough to compare his flat, sarcastic tone to the agitated one behind the door.

"Aliens, eh?" a second, more easily recognizable voice scoffed, eliminating all of Jim's doubts. The second voice unquestionably belonged to Hobbes, the paranoid ex-marine, which confirmed that the guy hawking the cock-and-bull alien story had indeed been his partner. Somehow, this wasn't a surprise. "That's a good one, Fawkes. Look, I know those mooks over at Area 51 like to talk a good talk but you can't let them sucker you in with their B.S. If they could dig up a spaceship that ran half as fast as their mouths we'd be halfway to the Ford Galaxy by now."

"I'm telling you, Hobbes, I think these guys are the real thing. I went invisible and followed them - they didn't even know I was there when they were talking about that stuff."

"What the...?" Jim blinked several times in rapid succession, wondering whether Blair might be right after all - that his senses were starting to go haywire. Maybe he'd inhaled a little too much of that sodium pentathol and it was causing auditory hallucinations. Because Fawkes couldn't have just said what it sounded like he said.

"What is it?" Blair hissed, his hand on Jim's back as he leaned fruitlessly towards the door to listen in. "Who's in there?"

"It's the guys from Fish and Game," he whispered back, hesitant for the moment to say more.

Inside, Hobbes had apparently had enough of his partner's bull. "We'll talk about this later. Did you get the joe?"

Fawkes cleared his throat. "Yeah. Fine. Here it is. I don't know if it makes a difference, but the cops think that it was the cup that was poisoned, not the coffee."

"Aha!" cried Hobbes in delight, making Jim wince at the sudden noise. His eardrum felt like it was about to start bleeding. "I knew it!"

"That the cups were tainted? That's bullshit, Hobbes, and you know it. You couldn't even tell that they were drugged."

"Ah, but what you do not yet know is that your highly skilled partner has extracted a wealth of information from a certain pimply-faced suspect who was under the mistaken impression that he could match wits with Bobby Hobbes."

"Zits?" Fawkes asked, his tone practically dripping with astonishment. "He sang?"

"Like a canary."

"No, seriously. He really confessed?"

There was a brief pause before Hobbes responded. "No," he admitted reluctantly, "but he fingered the perp. He caught some middle-aged Frenchie lifting an armload of coffee cups from the kitchen a few days back. And get this: today he goes out to set the table and runs into the same guy. It seems that Frogger was lurking around our table just before lunch and was beating a hasty retreat just as Zits entered the scene."

"Okay," Fawkes replied, "so now what? We just scour the hotel saying 'Bonjour' and see if anyone replies?"

"What the matter, Fawkes? You afraid of a little leg-work? Life isn't always glands and roses, you know."

"Seriously, Hobbes, I've asked you to stop using that expression..."

"Okay, okay," came the dismissive reply. "Just don't worry about tracking down the perp. We'll grab the cops and your buddies from A-51... They'll do their part and we'll find the guy in no time." Another pause. "What? Why are you making that face? You look like you're dying to say something, so let's have it."

"Hobbes?" Fawkes began hesitantly. "Do I smell funny?"

That was the last straw for Jim and he pulled away from the door, dialing down his hearing. "That little prick," he murmured under his breath.

"What is it?" demanded Blair. "What's going on?"

Jim set his jaw, drawing in a deep, angry breath. "Apparently your new fashion consultant was spying on our conversation earlier."

"What?" Blair's response came in the form of a surprised laugh. "But how? Was he hanging off the side of the balcony or something?"

"Nope," said Jim. "Invisible."

"That's just great," Blair scoffed, swatting his shoulder irritably. "Our enemies are trying to drug us and our allies are spying on us. You've picked a hell of a time to find on-the-job humor."

"I'm serious."

"But that's impossible."

"I know what I heard, Chief. This Fawkes character is our phantom waiter. At least now we know why I couldn't see him. And something about his invisibility must cool down the air around him, which is how I could pick-up his trail."

But Blair, always the skeptic when it came to outlandish theories that weren't his own, shook his head insistently. "I'm sorry, Jim, but I'm not buying this. Even ignoring a little obstacle known as THE LAWS OF PHYSICS, it just doesn't make any sense. If the guy *could* turn invisible he wouldn't be able to see... and that wouldn't make him much of a spy, now, would it? Besides that, what the hell would he be doing working for the Department of Fish and Game?"

"How should I know?" Jim snapped. "Look, you can interview him for the Discovery Channel later. I'm telling you, this guy can go invisible."

Blair snorted in that pissy way of his that said, 'you are failing to validate me and I would give you the silent treatment if I had the self-control to stop talking for more than twelve seconds.' He lasted about eight before muttering, "Great, Jim. Anything else?"

Jim looked down at his partner earnestly. "Yeah," he said. "I think they kidnapped the waiter."

 

***

 

The waiter had been a tough nut to crack - surprisingly tough for a zit-faced, snot-nosed punk - but in the end he had cracked like a nut. Hobbes was quite pleased with his handiwork, even if his partner wasn't adequately appreciative of his efforts. He had wrangled a solid description of the suspect and an eyewitness account of the guy's overt thievery of dishware. Zits was still proclaiming his innocence, no doubt out of shame for turning stool-pigeon, but it didn't matter as long as he dished out the dirt. The bottom line was that it was only a matter of time before the perp got what was coming to him and it would be all thanks to Bobby Hobbes.

Fawkes had gone into Crisis Mode and was therefore pretty much useless. He had his boxers in a bunch over the big cop, Ellison... claiming that he could see him when he was invisible... or maybe it was smell... or hear? Hobbes wasn't really sure because Fawkes had just burst into the room and started talking a mile a minute. It was very confusing. Then he went off on a tangent about how Brainy and Scowly worked at Area 51, which was a little surprising since, even though Hobbes didn't like them much, they didn't seem bad enough to run with the jackasses from Groom Lake.

But at least Fawkes had managed to make off with the coffee. Now no longer needed for Zits' interrogation, it was sure to come in handy once they tracked down the guy who was calling the shots.

Hobbes tugged on his shirt cuffs and cleared his throat. "Right, Fawkes, leave the coffee on the desk and let's go."

"Go where?" Fawkes whined.

He lifted an eyebrow devilishly. "We're gonna catch a Frog." He strode to the door and flung it open, only to leap backwards as Ellison and that know-it-all partner of his practically toppled into the room. He didn't know how they'd wound up there but he would be glad to have some help with the leg-work. Besides, this was an interesting opportunity. If the cop really had super hearing as Fawkes claimed, it was time to test the waters.

"Listening at keyholes, Detective?" Hobbes put forth smugly, folding his arms. "I wouldn't think you'd have to resort to such measures." If Fawkes was right about Ellison he expected a flinch of surprise. If not, an affronted denial.

Unfortunately, he got neither. The comment just pissed the guy off. Some people just couldn't take a subtle inquiry.

"What are you doing with that kid?" Ellison barked, nodding at Zits, who was still pretending to cower in his chair.

"Getting a make on the perp, that's what," he shot back. "The kid saw him messing around at our table before lunch. What are *you* doing loitering in the hall outside our room?"

"Uh, we were just coming to find you," Curly stammered, stepping in front of his partner. "We think we've got a lead on the suspect."

Hobbes lifted his eyebrows. "Oh yeah?"

"That's right," Ellison growled, laying a palm on his partner's shoulder to gently push him out of his way. "We've turned up some evidence supporting O'Neill's theory that the coffee was drugged by our..." He hesitated, a look of disgust smeared all over his face.

"Communication Counselor," Curly provided.

Hobbes nodded in acknowledgement. "Belinda."

"Wasn't it Brenda?" Fawkes asked.

"It's Barbara, actually," said Curly, the smug little shit.

"Whatever." Ellison looked as irritated as Hobbes felt. "The point is we've established a partial means. It's looking like the most obvious suspect is the right one. But she's got to have an accomplice - she was with us all morning and couldn't have placed the tainted cups at the scene."

"Our make is a Caucasian male, late forties," Hobbes provided. "Dark hair. Greasy moustache. About five foot eight, three hundred fifty pounds."

"Oooh," Curly chuckled. "A hefty boy." Fawkes had the poor judgment to encourage the kid by laughing at this remark.

Ellison rolled his eyes. "Anything else?"

"Speaks no English. Only French." Hobbes dusted his hands of the matter and waited for the accolades to rain down.

But Ellison was as stingy with his praise as the Official was with his paper clips. He looked over at his partner, who was leafing through a stack of papers. "That fit in with what you've got, Chief?"

Once he found the page he was looking for, Curly chewed his lip as he skimmed it. "Yeah, actually that could be Barbara's husband. The register says they're from Quebec, so it's not totally off-base that he doesn't speak English: he must be French-Canadian."

"So they're in it together," Hobbes declared grandly. "Husband and wife. Bonnie and Clyde. You got a room number?"

Curly nodded. "818."

"Good," said Hobbes. "Let's go."

"Woah there, Little Tiger. Not so fast."

Hobbes glared back at his partner impatiently. He didn't mind that Fawkes made up nicknames for him - it was a charming testament to their evolving partnership - but he really wished he wouldn't use them in front of guys like Ellison. He felt that it undermined his mystique. "What's the problem?"

Fawkes jerked his head towards the other side of the room. "What about Zits?"

Damn. He'd already forgotten about Zits. The kid was sitting there blinking up at them innocently, wiping his allegedly innocent nose across his innocent, crusty sleeve.

From the door there arose a dismissive snort. It came from Ellison. "Let him go," he unwisely suggested.

Hobbes looked back at him in astonishment. "Are you kidding?" he demanded. "This kid is a potential co-conspirator and menace. No way I'm letting him walk."

"Fine," growled Ellison. "Then you can stay and guard him. When we grab the guy who's actually responsible we'll bring him back here." He turned on his heels and stomped out the door, prompting Hobbes to wonder whether he might benefit from some mood-stabilizing medication.

"We'll be back in... an indeterminate amount of time," added Curly in what sounded suspiciously like sympathy but was probably college-boy sarcasm.

Once Curly was out the door, Fawkes plastered on his shit-eating grin and said, "Don't worry, Hobbesy, I'll keep an eye on them."

A moment later he was gone and Hobbes was alone, wondering how the hell he had gotten benched. From the window there was a drawn-out snuffle.

"Hey mister," squawked Zits. "It sounds like we're going to be here for a while, huh?"

"Could be," he replied grimly, continuing to stare at the lifeless beige of the closed door. "Maybe you can take this time to reflect upon what you've done: recognize that crime doesn't pay."

There was a long pause that he hoped involved the gangly teen pondering his sage words. After staring wistfully at the door for several more moments, Hobbes sighed and shuffled over to sit down across from Zits and wait out the long haul before his partner's return. When he looked up the kid was peering back at him, his beady little eyes brimming with boyish hope.

After another deep snuffle he said, "You wanna play Gin Rummy?"

 

***

 

After the moment of her initial confession of wrongdoing, Babs had degenerated into sufficient hysteria to render herself incoherent. Jack grimaced and picked at the tabletop, watching the little splinters of wood as they came away from the rough surface and flicking them at the floor to disappear into the carpeting. It wasn't a particularly engaging occupation, he freely admitted, but anything was better than watching a plump, rhinestone-clad motivational speaker sobbing uncontrollably into the shoulder of a highly discomforted Daniel.

While there was a degree of entertainment to be had from the sheer humor of seeing the linguist awkwardly pat Babs on the back as she bawled and bawled, completely soaking the left arm of his shirt and leaving two big spidery mascara stains, Jack's guilt started getting the better of him after a while. Daniel was the master of the "please rescue me" pathetic expression and every time Jack looked over there he felt his resistance to it slipping away. He would gladly give his life for Daniel a thousand times over but he was damned if he was going to take on that level of torture on his friend's behalf. His altruism had its limits, after all.

And so he averted his eyes and tried to listen objectively as Daniel attempted to simultaneously reassure the weeping woman and coax information out of her. The most they had been able to determine was that her husband was also involved, a fact that had come out in a series of hitched sobs during a rare lull in the waterworks. Frankly, the whole situation was ludicrous and Jack couldn't make heads or tails of it. He had been sure that the NID was behind the attempted drugging and yet these were not the blubbering sobs of a woman who moonlighted as a top-secret government conspirator. Frankly, they weren't even the blubbering sobs of a woman who could tie her own shoes. Daniel had expressed some vague, unsubstantiated doubts that their enemy was either as malicious or as competent as Jack had automatically assumed and he was beginning to suspect that he was right.

He fished Daniel's phone out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. The signal was weakly present but there was still no response from Hammond. He was hoping the background check would turn up something they could use to assess the level of threat they were facing. It was obvious that Babs was involved but it was impossible to tell how many others she was in league with. Since this was probably not the first time she had used this truth serum scam, her bank records and a map of her recent movements might turn up an illuminating link among her "clients" and help give Jack an estimate of how many people he should expect to be taking out. But the phone stubbornly refused to ring and provide him with this information. Stupid phone.

Across the table, Babs was finally beginning to settle down.

"It'll be okay," Daniel assured her, patting her arm like she was a sparkly sack of nitroglycerin. "Mr. Sandburg will fully recover, I promise. But in the meantime you need to tell us about your husband. Is he here in the hotel?"

Babs nodded, dabbing at her nose with the Kleenex, now reduced to sodden shreds, that Jack had given her. As she removed her face from the vicinity of Daniel's shoulder he noticed that her eye-shadow and lipstick had also left stains. It looked like that time Homer invented the make-up gun.

"Is he the one who drugged our coffee?" Jack demanded, focusing on the seriousness of the situation before he had a chance to laugh at the grim fate of Daniel's favorite sweater.

She nodded again and began another round of sobbing. Though she made another play for Daniel's sweater he craftily deflected it by placing his hand comfortingly on her shoulder, thereby keeping her at arm's length. Out of options, she wept in to the ratty Kleenex, her blood-red nails clasping what was left of the material in hopeless desperation.

"We need you to take us to him," Daniel prodded gently. "I think you've come to appreciate that what you've done here is wrong. You're a good woman, Barbara, and I'm sure your husband is a good man." He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and Jack found himself marveling at his friend's mastery of manipulative diplomacy. "Jacques wouldn't want to hurt anyone either, would he?"

"My husband is very loving," Barbara snuffled. "He just wants to help people."

"Super," said Jack, smiling as insincerely as he could get away with without setting her off again. "So maybe you could help *us* by leading the way to this hero of the masses. We've got a few things we'd like to chat about."

Babs took a deep breath and then nodded her consent. She clutched at Daniel needily as he helped her out of her chair and Jack momentarily wondered whether her entire breakdown was just an act to give her an excuse to grope him.

Still sniffling, she led them to the elevator in the now-vacant lobby. Jack looked at his watch, noting that it was a good ten minutes after their scheduled rendezvous with Ellison and Sandburg and reacting to their absence with a combination of indifference, annoyance and worry. As it turned out, he and Daniel were well on their way to resolving the situation without their help, but then again punctuality was a common courtesy. His worry stemmed from the fact that Ellison in particular struck him as the kind of guy that was never late for anything *ever* unless he had a good reason like being shot or captured or something. On the other hand, they might easily have just lost track of time.

As they waited for the elevator Jack glanced out onto the patio but while the open doors afforded a clear view of their lunch table, the policemen were nowhere to be seen. He frowned uncertainly until the ding of the elevator returned his thoughts to more immediate concerns. They stepped into the car, Babs still curled around Daniel's left arm as she instructed him to push the button for the eighth floor. His glasses were slightly fogged from the moisture generated by her crying and the undoubtedly discomforting warmth of her unrelenting embrace.

When they reached the eighth floor, the doors opened up into a small waiting area and Babs wailed as she caught sight of herself in the hall mirrors. Given that her face was so streaked with black that she looked like she was on her way to a Raiders game, Jack couldn't say that he blamed her. To their left, the area met a long hallway in a tee, where little brown signs directed them to rooms located to the left and right.

"Hey, what's the room number?" he called over his shoulder, hoping the inquiry would encourage Daniel to haul Babs away from the mirror.

But before she could answer, a bolt of lightning disguised as a pudgy man in a maroon velour jogging suit went streaking through the hallway ahead. Babs cried out when she saw him, screaming something in French that, judging from the urgency and intonation, roughly translated as, "Run, Forrest, Run!"

That had to be the husband. Jack sprinted after him, reaching into his jacket to grab the zat gun he had smuggled in for just such an emergency. When he reached the hall he gave a quick glance in the direction from which the man had come and saw that there was no one in pursuit. Satisfied, he opened the zat and fired.

About twelve feet in front of him there was a crackle of lighting and a thud but Jacques himself was still up and running, fast approaching the corner at the end of the hall. Jack fired again and this time hit his mark. The fleeing man fell to the ground, temporarily immobilized by the alien weapon.

A moment later Daniel joined him in the corridor followed closely by Babs, who shrieked in horror when she saw her prone husband at the end of the hall. She rushed forward to see to him but tripped over her own feet, face-planting into the carpet in a maneuver that would have been hilariously funny if Jack hadn't felt a slight twinge of guilt over having just shot her husband. In all likelihood, the guy would turn out to be just as innocuous as she was but there was no mistaking that he was making a run for it and had to be stopped. And it wasn't like he wouldn't recover in a few minutes. Babs struggled to her feet and scurried the rest of the way over to her husband, rolling him onto his back and kissing him all over his face, leaving faint red marks with what was left of her lipstick.

Jack subtly put the weapon back in his coat, but that didn't stop Daniel from figuring out exactly what had happened. "You brought a ZAT?" he exclaimed, gaping at Jack in unchecked affront. "To a no-weapons mandated federal workshop?" He threw up his hands agitatedly and then paused, drawing in a few deep breaths. After taking a moment to call out to Babs and guarantee that her husband would be fine, Daniel leaned in closer, addressing him in an angry hiss. "What if there had been inspectors to enforce the no-weapons clause? What if we had been searched at the border?"

Jack shrugged, not sure whether to be entertained by his friend's ire or surprised that he should be so taken aback by his actions. Shouldn't Daniel realize by now that he never followed stupid rules if he could possibly avoid it? "I had my story all planned out," he assured him. "I was going to tell them it was a foot massager."

Daniel pretended not to be amused at this remark but Jack could tell by the way he folded his arms that he was. "And if that didn't work?"

"Then I'd tell them it was yours," he retorted, offering up his most mischievous grin.

But before Daniel could come up with an appropriately outraged response, further banter on this theme was derailed by a low moan and a noise like the shattering of fine glass. They both glanced in the direction of the sound: off in the distance Babs still knelt weeping next to her husband, but closer by - at the approximate place where she had tripped - lay another prone form. A form that Jack knew for a fact had not been there before.

Both he and Daniel rushed to the man's side and swiftly turned him over, revealing it to be Fawkes, the smart-mouthed Fish and Game agent. Jack frowned as Daniel looked up at him in confusion.

"How did this happen?" he asked, the fluorescent overhead lighting glinting yellow in the panes of his glasses.

Unsure what to make of it, Jack shrugged. "I fired the zat... it looked like it hit something but there was nothing there so I assumed it malfunctioned. Then I shot Babs' better half. End of story."

"Well it looks like it *did* hit something," Daniel murmured, knitting his brow as he looked down at the body.

Jack narrowed his eyes and responded with an ironic snort. "Ya think?"

"But how did...?" The linguist encountered a rare loss for words as he gestured at Fawkes, who with his rumpled clothes and wild hair looked just as irreverent as he did when he was conscious.

"Musta been invisible," Jack grunted.

His companion's eyebrows flew up. "Invisible?"

"Invisible."

Daniel cocked his head to the side, intrigued. "Huh."

 

***

 

While he still didn't exactly buy Jim's invisibility theory, Blair endeavored to keep a close eye on Darien as they made their way up to the eighth floor. He wasn't sure what he was looking for - maybe a flash of transparency, maybe a hint of hyper-awareness that might speak to his ability to function without the use of his vision - but he felt he owed it to Jim to at least consider the possibility that he was right. Still, Blair was going to have a difficult time accepting something that so overtly violated everything he knew about science.

Little conversation ensued as the three of them made their way up to the eighth floor. There was a particular awkwardness subsisting between Jim and Darien, who obviously bugged the crap out of one another, and it made for some truly legendary uncomfortable silences. Despite the fact that Blair got along with both of them, their mutual enmity was hardly surprising, particularly considering that Darien's lackadaisical attitude constituted the perfect foil for Jim's uber-anal, demanding personality.

While a substantial portion of Blair's nature compelled him to jump in and do what he could to diffuse the tension, the part of him that had been tempered by the practicality of police work warned him against it. At this juncture, tackling internal issues was only going to distract them from their common purpose, so he decided that their animosity was better left unresolved until after they had questioned Barbara's husband.

Consequently they approached Room 818 in total silence, as if emulating the Hazda of the Tanzanian veldt. It was one of the plush suites at the front of the lodge, situated within a tangle of Byzantine corridors that continually divided and re-merged without any apparent rhyme or reason. Once they arrived, Blair stood at Jim's side as he knocked authoritatively on the door, while Darien hung back, slouching against the wall.

After a short wait, the door was cracked open by a man who precisely fit the description Hobbes had given them. He was middle-aged and overweight and wore one of those zip-up velvet sweat suits that had been all the rage in the late seventies and were starting to make a comeback on the rave scene.

"Hey, nice outfit," said Darien with apparent sincerity, a comment that amused Blair but for which Jim was unable to conceal his unbridled disdain.

The man blinked back at them in confusion and Blair, remembering the language barrier, looked down at the register to remind himself of the name. "Jacques Peche?" he said, trying to sound as casual and non-threatening as possible. After all, he had no idea whether this man was a criminal or an innocent bystander or neither but in possession of a gun. As such, it seemed that the best plan was to avoid alarming him. "Bonjour!"

Jacques did not respond other than to narrow his eyes suspiciously and Blair, having reached the end of his vast repertoire of French conversation, looked hopefully at his companions.

"We'd like to speak to you," belted Darien, practically startling Jacques out of his sweat suit. The poor man clutched at his chest with one hand and the door with the other as he tried to regain his breath. His jerky reaction to the shock had jostled his hair, causing several strands of greasy comb-over to fall down over his face.

Scowling, Jim turned around and hissed, "He's French-Canadian, not deaf." After rubbing his ear for a moment he added, "Not yet, anyway."

"May we come in?" Blair asked, gesturing first at himself and then at the room beyond the cracked door.

Jacques regarded him skeptically and then glanced up at Jim before shaking his head in refusal.

"We just want to talk," he ineffectively clarified, making a talking gesture with his right hand. Behind him, he could hear Darien's poorly suppressed laughter.

Again the man shook his head, and this time followed up his refusal to cooperate by attempting to close the door on them, an act that sent Jim plummeting to the end of his rope.

"That's it," he growled, stopping the door before it could close and shoving it back towards the startled Quebecer. Jacques offered little resistance, but backpedaled into the suite, his eyes sliding secretively towards a corner of the living room.

Naturally, Jim picked up on this physical cue and barged into the room, immediately honing in on the objects indicated by Jacques' line of sight. "There's a stack of coffee cups here as well as a hotplate," he said. "This could be your heating element, Chief. Why don't you check the bathroom for signs of chemicals. Fawkes, head to the bedroom and search their bags."

Blair nodded and made his way across the suite amidst the affronted yells of Jacques, who, despite the language barrier, was getting his point across loud and clear. The bathroom was about eleven times the size of the one in the room he shared with Jim. At first blush everything looked normal enough, with wet towels and various toiletries scattered about, but beneath the sink he found a heavy black case containing a number of solvent bottles and a large glass beaker overflowing with unlabeled vials. Pulling his hand inside his shirt-sleeve to avoid leaving prints, he selected the topmost vial, which was half-full of a yellow powder, and cautiously opened it. A quick waft of the substance revealed it to have the garlicky odor Jim had attributed to sodium pentathol and he took it out to the living room for the sentinel to inspect.

"That's it, Chief," Jim said, with a gruff nod of approval. "This is our guy." He turned towards the bedroom and shouted, "Fawkes! Get in here. We've got all the evidence we need."

Jacques had apparently relinquished his objection to the search during the course of Blair's absence because he had given up shouting at Jim and retreated to sit quietly on the sofa. However, when he caught sight the vial and realized what was happening, his eyes went wide with panic. Displaying an astonishing level of speed and agility, he bolted for the door just as Darien came strolling into the room. He was out of the suite before any of them had a chance to react.

"Dammit!" Jim hissed and sprinted out the door, Blair and Darien hot on his heels. The hallway met a swift dead-end to the left and to the right it forked into two equivalent passageways, neither of which showed any signs of their escaped suspect. After a moment's consideration, Jim said, "Fawkes, take the left one, Sandburg and I will take the right," and then took off without waiting for a response.

They wove through a number of twists and turns but Jim soon slowed his pace, sniffing at the air for a hint of which direction they should take, presumably by keying in on Jacques' rather pungent hair wax. A moment later he stopped entirely, swore under his breath, and took off running full-kilter in the direction from which they had come.

"What's up?" Blair panted once he had caught up from the abrupt change of direction. "I thought we wanted to head him off."

Jim picked up the pace. "We do," he said, "but now I'm positive he went this way. I got it wrong before because he dodged into the right passage at the initial fork before heading back left. Fawkes will find him first but, invisible or not, it couldn't hurt to give the kid some back-up."

Blair just nodded and kept running. It was all he could do to keep up when Jim really put his pedal down. They dodged around several sharp corners, the last of which sent Blair slamming into Jim, who had stopped abruptly on the other side, parked at the juncture of two corridors. After recovering his balance and violently shushing him, Jim jerked his head towards the adjacent hallway. Stomach knotted with the amorphous fear of what he might find, Blair cautiously peeked around the corner.

Perhaps ten meters ahead of him, O'Neill had just skidded in from another side-hall. He had spotted Jacques, who was sprinting top speed to the next junction and keeping an impressive pace for a man of his spheroidal build. In the blink of an eye, O'Neill plunged his hand into his jacket, drew a peculiar-looking z-shaped weapon and fired, discharging a surge of electricity which exploded in the empty air of the hallway. He fired again and the stream of energy struck Jacques cleanly between the shoulder blades, sending him toppling to the ground.

"What the hell was that?" Blair gasped, transfixed on the bizarre object in the colonel's hand. "And where did Darien go? Jacques couldn't have lost him that quickly, could he?"

Jim did not respond but continued to watch intently as O'Neill was joined by Daniel and their Communication Counselor. The latter screamed at the sight of her fallen husband and ran toward him, tripping clumsily halfway down the hall.

"There's Fawkes," Jim observed with a wry smile. "Your fan club just tripped over him. Looks like O'Neill shot him."

"What?" Blair continued to peer down the hallway, unable to see whatever it was Jim had spotted, but that was nothing new. A few moments later, however, Darien materialized in the exact spot Jim had indicated. Blair blinked in astonishment as O'Neill and Daniel rushed over to Darien's prone form, apparently as surprised by the agent's spontaneous appearance as he was.

"Now do you buy that he can turn invisible?" Jim asked, elbowing him insistently.

Blair nodded dumbly, his amazement at this incredible revelation far outweighing Jim's typically irritating, 'I told you so' attitude.

"Fawkes said the flyboys do some kind of work with aliens," he said, abandoning his gloating in favor of a tone that honestly solicited Blair's opinion, "and - god help me - I think I believe him. Think that gun of O'Neill's is some kind of outer-space technology?"

"At this point," said Blair, still reeling from the spectacle of the invisible man and the ray gun, "I think I could believe anything."

 

***

 

The first, second, and third things that went through Darien's mind were, "Ow," "Ow," and "Ow." In that order. The fourth one was, "What the fuck?!" And the fifth one was, "Ow."

A voice was hovering above him. "Darien?" it said, fraught with concern. "Darien? Are you all right?"

He fluttered his eyes open only to find that his vision was blurry, but he couldn't mistake the familiar flash of overhead lights reflecting off of nerdy glasses. "Kevin?" he murmured.

There was a long pause, long enough for Darien to come to his senses and remember that Kevin was dead. "No," the voice finally replied. "It's me, Daniel. I work for the Air Force. We both hate fishing. Remember?"

Darien sat up, a sharp pain stabbing through his head. "Daniel," he repeated. "What happened?"

"You must have run into a door or something," came a gruffer voice. It was Daniel's partner, O'Neill. Darien looked from one to the other and couldn't help but note that these two were so 'good cop/bad cop' it was almost a cliché.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. He remembered running down the hall and then a sudden pain. It had felt like a quicksilver headache, only all over his body. Had it been the stress? Or his adrenaline reacting negatively with the gland? He really couldn't be sure. The one thing he *was* sure of was that if he had let the suspect get away, Hobbes was going to have a hissy fit. "That guy I was chasing... What happened to...?"

"It's okay," O'Neill said flatly. "We got him."

With Daniel's help, Darien struggled shakily to his feet and looked in the direction of O'Neill's curt nod. Sure enough there was BelindaBrendaBarbara smothering the unconscious Jacques with her more than ample bosom and sobbing uncontrollably. Just then, Ellison and Curly came tearing around the corner, arriving just in time to see that they'd been beaten to the punch, that O'Neill had already bagged their man.

Curly, whom Darien liked but had immediately pegged as a Momma's Boy, made a bee-line for BelindaBrendaBarbara and her unconscious spouse, evidently intending to coax her out of her hysteria. He knelt next to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, eliciting a startled yelp followed by a shrill cackle of delight the moment she saw him. She began weeping again, apparently with tears of joy, and offered a litany of praises to the heavens that he was alive. Ignoring his ineffectual protests, she folded him into her embrace, forgetting about the plight of her husband completely.

Ellison, meanwhile, had wandered up to stand next to O'Neill and join him in surveying the scene with grim, military disdain; the pair of them looked like they came from the same Collectors' Edition box-set of G.I. Joes. "What happened to them?" he asked, inclining his head first at Darien and then at Jacques. In the distance, Curly had managed to wriggle out of BelindaBrendaBarbara's kung-fu grip and was walking over to rejoin them.

"Fawkes was like that when we found him," O'Neill replied. "Babs' husband was trying to escape, so I took care of him."

"Took care of him how, exactly?" asked Curly as he ambled up. He was looking intently at O'Neill but every so often his eyes would flick over to Ellison. "Whatever you did to him, he's down for the count."

O'Neill shrugged. "Vulcan nerve pinch," he said dismissively. "It's a closely guarded Air Force secret."

Curly narrowed his eyes, studying the man's features closely. "Aha," he said, nodding as if this constituted a satisfactory answer. "It's nice to hear the military is putting its knowledge of alien technology to good use."

The entire hallway froze at that statement. Darien was confident that Curly couldn't possibly comprehend the full meaning of his words. He was probably just a closeted Star Trek geek trying to make a witty remark. But within the context of what Darien already knew about them, the others gave themselves away. Daniel raised his eyebrows and looked meaningfully at O'Neill, who shook his head subtly. "We try," he eventually responded. "What we got from the Klingons was *gold*."

After that the tension eased up and they all stood around more or less copasetically waiting for Jacques to regain consciousness. When he did finally recover, however, there was a great deal of yelling and confusion that culminated in his refusal to speak to anyone but his wife. The Ellison-O'Neill twins quickly concluded that he would not be forthcoming as long as BelindaBrendaBarbara was there and sent her back to her suite clinging lovingly to Curly, whom Darien prayed was schooled in the fine art of saying, "No means no!"

Once his wife had been removed from the scene Jacques calmed down a bit but was obviously still suffering from the effects of whatever O'Neill had done to him. Disoriented, he began looking around the hallway and muttering to himself until he was engaged in conversation by Daniel the Prodigy, who just happened to be fluent in French (of course... where the hell had O'Neill found this guy?). The rest of them milled around randomly, looking about as useless to the operation as Darien felt.

Once Jacques began looking a little more together and allowed Daniel to help him to his feet, Darien decided to take a proactive role in saving himself from dying of boredom. "Hobbes will be waiting for us at the room," he hinted unsubtly. "We should probably get back there."

His suggestion was surprisingly well received by all. Daniel was interested in finding a more comfortable venue in which to continue his interview with Jacques, who had worn himself out in his escape attempt and was in desperate need of a chair. Even the twins were quick to agree to the relocation, banking on the fact that the spherical speed-demon was less likely to escape from a closed room than from the Mystical Nexus of Holiday Inn Corridors that was the unfathomably labyrinthine eighth floor.

As they piled into the elevator, the lines of allegiance delineated themselves with perfect clarity. Daniel was desperately trying to sustain a conversation with Jacques, who was still pretty out of it but seemed much more at ease in the presence of someone that spoke his language. Next to Daniel was O'Neill, who for some reason felt compelled to listen in on the conversation despite the fact that he obviously had no idea what they were saying. Ellison stood a few paces away, exchanging the occasional gruff tactical remark with his grey-haired counterpart. And waaaaay off in the corner where no one would talk to him was Darien.

He sighed as the floors ticked slowly by and found himself particularly eager to get back to Hobbes, if for no other reason than to have someone marginally normal to talk to. And the notion that Hobbes qualified as "normal," at least in comparison to everyone else they had met, was deeply troubling in itself.

When they got back to the room, Darien managed to win even further ostracism from the crowd by revealing that he had forgotten his key. He did his best to ignore the grumbles of annoyance and raised his fist to knock on the door, only to have it flung open before he had a chance to touch it. A very agitated Hobbes had evidently been waiting at the door to welcome him back.

"It's about time," he huffed, glaring at Darien accusatorily. "I'm down fifty bucks here. The kid's a friggin' con-artist."

At the table sat Zits with a deck of cards, a fistful of bills, and a devilish smile on his face that said maybe - just maybe - he would one day lose his virginity.

 

***

 

Their arrival at the room prompted a hasty reshuffling of personages as Daniel and Jacques were escorted to what Hobbes referred to as the "interrogation area," which was in reality just two chairs and a table barely large enough to hold a laptop. The others stood around, awkwardly filling what little floor space the accommodations afforded and glaring at Daniel for not interrogating their captive with sufficient efficacy. There were seven of them in all, including - bafflingly - their waiter from lunch, whom the Fish and Game agents insisted on scarring for life by continually referring to as "Zits."

Jack had also taken notice of their superfluous guest and after spending a few minutes shifting from foot to foot on the small strip of carpeting between one of the beds and the closet, wedged between Ellison and the wall, he apparently decided to make some room. "Hey Hobbes," he said, inclining his head towards the agent, who was leaning stiffly against the vanity. "Your little bridge partner can go now."

"He's not my bridge partner," Hobbes shot back, drawing out his statement in a way that implied he was trying desperately to figure out what to say next. "He's a suspect. A very suspicious suspect."

"Yeah, well, we've got the real suspect here, so he's free to go." Jack's eyes were narrowed and his lips were pursed and Daniel felt selfishly grateful that for once that expression wasn't directed at him.

Hobbes wasn't about to fold. "He could be an accomplice," he insisted. "He could have aided and abetted the whole operation. He's been abetting under our noses all along. The kid's an abettor. A definite abettor."

"Come on, Hobbes," a smirk-faced Darien interjected, hitching himself up from where he had sprawled out on one of the beds. "The only thing Zits here has abetted is *you* out of fifty bucks."

"Well ask *him*, then," Hobbes insisted, shaking his hand in the general direction of Daniel and Jacques. "See what he thinks about the fact that his little errand boy ratted him out."

Unsure of how to respond to this, Daniel lifted his eyebrows and appealed to Jack for advice. Jack gave him the go-ahead by way of one of his "just humor him" shrugs and Daniel turned back to Jacques, who was still woozy and unresponsive from his encounter with the zat.

He had to repeat his question about the waiter a few times but eventually it got through and Jacques blinked blearily at the boy for several moments before responding that he didn't recognize him. He went on to offer an unfocused narrative about how he and his wife had gone about drugging their cups.

Daniel paraphrased the rest of his response for the benefit of the others. "He says he doesn't know him," he explained, "and claims that he and Barbara were working without further accomplices."

"Good enough for me," muttered Ellison. He stalked around to the other side of the bed, where the gangly teen had been sitting primly, following the discussion like a tennis match. "Get out of here, kid, you're free to go. And... ah... thanks for your help."

The waiter appeared profoundly confused by this and he looked up at Hobbes, as if to ask his permission. Hobbes was obviously displeased with this decision but was also aware that at four against one he didn't have much hope of winning the argument. "Fine. Go on. Get out of here. Go bilk some hardworking Joe out of his life savings."

The kid nodded and, with what almost looked like a pang of regret, shuffled out of the room, eyed keenly by Hobbes until Ellison closed the door behind him. Jack grinned and hopped onto the now-vacated bed, leaning against the backboard and clasping his hands behind his head. "Much better," he attested.

Meanwhile, Jacques was rapidly becoming more lucid and when Ellison returned to the main part of the room he started chattering frantically and pointing at him.

"What?" Ellison demanded. "What's he saying?"

Daniel paused, trying to assemble a delicate means of conveying their suspect's concerns. "Ah..." he stammered. "Well, Jacques is... requesting that someone be dispatched to... extract your partner from the company of his wife. Apparently he fears for her... ah... chastity." He swallowed hard, hoping he had managed to get the point across without being too offensive.

As it turned out, however, he needn't have worried about his own level of diplomacy, as Darien's response to this pronouncement was to roll back and forth on his bed, doubled over in hysterical laughter.

Even Ellison took this with surprisingly good humor, saying, "Yeah, well, knowing Blair he's right to be worried." He crossed the room and scooped up the phone receiver from the little bedside table, punching in a set of numbers. Apparently he already knew Barbara's room number because after a moment he said, "Yeah, Chief, it's me. How is she? Yeah... yeah... She pinched your what? Uh huh. So how about now? Good. Look, you can just let her sleep, then, and come back down. Right. No, it'll be okay. See you in a few." He immediately depressed the receiver button and pressed zero to phone the lobby. "Yes, this is Detective Ellison from room 620. If a Mrs..." He stopped, looked demandingly at Daniel, and snapped his fingers several times.

A quick inquiry to Jacques revealed the woman's surname. "Peche," Daniel told him.

"If a Mrs. Peche from 818 attempts to leave the premises, please detain her. She has confessed to collaborating in the attempted drugging of several guests. I need you to contact the local authorities immediately and call me in room 215 the moment they get here. Thank you." He hung up and turned to face the room. "Sandburg will be right down," he said. "It seems that Barbara took a sleeping pill to calm her nerves and now she's out like a light. I don't think she'll give us any trouble."

"Your partner survive with his purity intact?" Jack asked wryly. "Old Babs can get a little grabby. She practically deflowered Danny here when we were coming up in the elevator."

Daniel pursed his lips and glared back at him in annoyance. "Yes, Jack, she practically did. And thanks for your help with that, by the way."

Jack just grinned and leaned back into the pillows while Ellison chuckled. "Sounds like Sandburg will have a few bruises but I'm pretty sure he'll recover."

"Lucky him," Daniel muttered under his breath and returned his attention to Jacques, hoping that he was sufficiently cogent to explain the motivations for his actions. Daniel was determined to find out what exactly the man had wanted from them, as neither he nor Jack would feel comfortable releasing him to the Canadian authorities until they had assessed just how much information he was privy to.

Not surprisingly, Jacques was significantly less hysterical than his wife and was correspondingly less forthcoming about their collaborative crime. Though he confessed to perpetrating it and spoke freely of the methods he had used for procuring and drugging the cups, he was dodgy about his reasons, evading each of Daniel's attempts to ask about them. He could sense that the others were getting increasingly agitated, although their impatience was never more obvious than when Sandburg returned to the room and was greeted by Ellison with a melodramatic eye roll.

Hobbes, who had been visibly disgruntled since the waiter's departure, stood with his arms folded, tapping his fingers obsessively against his bicep. In contrast, Jack looked like he was about to fall asleep. Daniel sighed and tried a new line of questioning, his hand automatically gravitating to the coffee cup at his elbow. Without even thinking about it, he took a deep swig and his eyes went wide with surprise. He let the cup clatter to the table as he choked back the mouthful of liquid, and couldn't help making a retching noise. "That coffee is ice cold," he sputtered in disgust.

Darien sat up abruptly at this, exchanging a look of horror with his partner. "Uh, yeah. It's also drugged."

Despite the fact that the mouthful of coffee was long gone, Daniel nearly choked. "What?"

"I... uh... lifted it from the table at lunch. We thought it might be - you know - useful." Darien was clearly mortified by the situation but not nearly so much as he might have been if he had been able to see Jack, now fully roused from his half-sleep, looming up angrily behind him.

"What the hell are you thinking, letting something like that just sit around the room?" The rebuke came out explosively, making Darien leap at least two feet off of the bed. "That's just plain irresponsible."

"Well what about him?" Hobbes chimed in, leaping to the defense of his partner and gesturing demonstratively at Daniel. "What kind of a sick person goes around drinking coffee that's just sitting around?" He turned to face him admonishingly. "That's a really disgusting habit, my friend."

Daniel sighed. He certainly couldn't argue with that one. "I wasn't really thinking," he said, shaking his head. "It's just that... I *always* have coffee. I guess it's a force of habit."

"Some habit," Hobbes scoffed.

"Hey, we tried to help him kick it," Jack protested, flashing his palms defensively. "We got the boys at the lab to wire his mugs with electrical shocks. It just made him drink faster."

"This isn't funny, Jack," Daniel snapped, outraged at the rapidity with which his friend had dissipated his anger and made light of the situation. "I really drank that stuff. What is it going to do to me?"

Jack started to respond but was interrupted by Ellison. "You'll be fine," he assured him. "The drug is present in trace quantities and you only had one drink. You might end up being a little suggestible but that's about it."

"See?" Jack added with a tight but reassuring grin. "Nothing to worry about."

"I don't know, Jack. What if I...?"

Jack shook his head, pointedly silencing him. "Listen up, people," he announced to the room, clapping his hands like an elementary school gym teacher. "Dr. Jackson is going to be unusually suggestible for a while. I therefore request that no one double dog dares him to do anything foolhardy for at least the next three hours." He turned back to him with a fiendish expression. "There. Satisfied?"

Daniel narrowed his eyes. "Yes. Thoroughly. Thank you." He knew that Ellison was probably right about the effects of the drug being mild, but even so he wasn't quite sure he understood the levity with which Jack was treating the situation. Was it intended to assuage Daniel's fears? Or was it an act for the benefit of the others in order to downplay the fact that he had potentially dangerous information to share? Either way, Daniel resolved himself to be extraordinarily careful about what he said. It was with a renewed trepidation that he returned his attention to Jacques, who thankfully didn't seem to have any idea what was going on.

Before he could proceed, however, he was belayed by a heavy hand resting on his shoulder. He looked up to see Hobbes standing over him, glaring at Jacques with a predatory twinkle in his eyes. "Maybe you should take a little break, here, Jackson," he said. "Let me see what I can get out of him."

"Oh," Daniel blinked back at him and straightened his glasses. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you spoke French."

"I don't need to speak French," he snorted back. "I speak a language that I can guarantee he'll understand."

"Really?" Daniel was dubious. "And what language would that be?"

"Tell him, Fawkesy."

From where he was bouncing lightly on the bed, Darien rolled his eyes. "That would be the universal language of 'kicking his ass.'"

"That's right," said Hobbes adamantly, scratching the side of his nose and then hooking both thumbs in his belt.

Daniel nodded thoughtfully and glanced from one agent to the other. "You guys do this routine a lot don't you?"

"Whenever God and country call, my friend."

Darien scratched the back of his head and sighed, regarding Daniel piteously. "Seriously. You have no idea."

With a conciliatory shrug, Daniel got to his feet and offered Hobbes his chair, grimacing as he immediately laid into Jacques in loud, over-enunciated English. He wandered across the room to stand next to Sandburg, who was leaning against the closet door. They started chatting about their various anthropological interests, which was a welcome relief from the frustrating circularity of his attempted interrogation.

Sandburg was exceedingly bright, as it turned out, and he had a number of interesting ideas of how to apply canonically anthropological methods of cultural analysis to modern-day societies. Daniel couldn't help but think that, left to propagate unchecked through the academic community, his innovative theories were likely to shame half of the world's modern sociologists out of the field. It was refreshing to encounter such a capable up-and-comer whose enthusiasm was directed towards a line of research that wasn't going to get him laughed out of academia.

Out of curiosity, Daniel made mention of his experience in South America and, in particular, of the legend of the Suyaylla. He wondered if there was a chance that Sandburg had recognized the same traits in Ellison that he had - if so, it would certainly explain what an anthropologist was doing hanging around with policemen, aside from ostensibly writing his thesis. Sandburg was far too intelligent not to recognize the inherent flaws in the study he was purporting to conduct - that no one in the police department had raised objections to his method was simply a consequence of their unfamiliarity with the social-scientific process.

Daniel's suspicions were supported by the fact that his mention of the Suyaylla made Sandburg highly agitated, prompting him to change the subject without even addressing any of his questions. "Come on, man, we've been talking about my research this entire time," he abruptly observed. "I'd like to hear more about yours. Does your work with the Air Force ever take you back to Egypt?"

Satisfied that he was right, Daniel was content to play along with the doctoral student's overt avoidance maneuver. "Very rarely," he explained. "But every now and then I get to go back. It's a shame it's not more often, though, because the country really is quite stunning and no matter how many times you see the Sphinx or the Great Pyramids they just never seem to get any less mystical. You should really try to go there sometime, because..." He paused, suddenly aware that all conversation in the room had ground to a halt and everyone - Jacques included - was staring at him like he had a symbiote stuck in his teeth. "What?" he demanded.

"Daniel," Jack said gently. But it was his irritated kind of gently. "Speak English."

He blinked in confusion. "I was."

Jack raised his eyebrows. "No. You weren't."

Daniel was about to protest again when Sandburg interjected. "Sorry, man, but it's true," he laughed. "It sounded like some kind of Arabic or something, not to say that that's my particular area of expertise, but it was definitely not English."

Frowning, he replayed the last part of the conversation in his head, forcing himself to hear his own words. He looked up at Jack in shock. "Oh my god," he murmured. "I was speaking Abydonian."

"Daniel." Jack's tone was sharp.

"What's Abydonian?"

"What?" Still disoriented, he blinked back at Sandburg for a few moments before the question actually registered and he realized with horror what he had said. "It's.. ah... an obscure dialect of Ancient Egyptian," he stammered. "I learned it while writing my dissertation."

Before he was compelled to elaborate, a digital trill broke the silence and rescued him. Jack bolted up and fished the ringing phone out of his coat pocket. "Yes, General? What? I'm sorry, what? Sir, I can hardly hear you. Okay, hold on. I'm going to see if I can get better reception in the hall." He started for the door and paused to put a hand on Daniel's shoulder. "You going to be okay?" he asked, a wealth of meaning in his tone.

Daniel nodded uncertainly but Jack was no more convinced than he was.

"Maybe you should get back to the interrogation," he suggested, offering Daniel an ingeniously convenient excuse to avoid digging himself into an even deeper hole. "Hobbes is getting nowhere over there."

"Hey!" Hobbes griped from his chair. "I'm just getting started, here."

To no one's surprise but Hobbes', Jack blithely ignored him and strode out of the room. Once the door had closed behind him, Ellison took it upon himself to take charge of the situation.

"All right, this is how it's going to go down," he announced. His tone was authoritative enough that even Hobbes stopped to listen. "Hobbes, you're out. Fawkes, you take that tainted coffee and put it somewhere out of the way. Jackson, you tell your buddy over there that if he doesn't make with the full confession I'm going to send Sandburg back upstairs to spend some quality time with his wife."

"No way, Jim," Sandburg snorted, demonstratively rubbing the back of his jeans. "I am *not* going back up there."

"You won't have to, Chief," he assured him. "If this doesn't get him to sing then I don't know what will. Now move it, all of you. I'm sick of this, the authorities will be here soon, and I happen to know that the hotel bar has an ice-cold six pack with our names on it."

Although the group's response to this order was not enthusiastic, it was at least marginally obedient. Hobbes reluctantly relinquished his chair to Daniel as Darien snatched up the coffee cup, slouched across the room, and irreverently handed it to Ellison, instructing him to shove it where the sun didn't shine. After a brief pause, he punctuated the suggestion by asking, "Is that out of the way enough for you?"

Daniel sat down and addressed Jacques with quiet concern, delicately broaching the topic of Sandburg's proposed return to the eighth floor as if it was an eventuality that worried him as much as it would Babs' jealous husband. To Ellison's credit, the threat did the trick and Jacques immediately admitted everything there was about what he had done, why he had done it, and precisely how many people they had scammed in the past. Within minutes, Daniel had learned everything he needed to know and was just about to reveal it to the others when Jack returned.

"Just got the results of the background check," he announced, flipping the phone closed and shoving it in his pocket. The harrowed and slightly embarrassed look on his face told Daniel that the report the General had given him was the same as he had just gotten from Jacques. "Turns out that Mr. and Mrs. Babs are nothing more than..."

"Salesmen," Daniel put in, rising from his chair with a weary sigh.

The rest of the room stared at him blankly.

"Daniel," Jack singsonged. "You're doing it again. In French this time."

"I am?"

"ENGLISH, Daniel."

He checked himself and focused on the words as they traveled from his brain to his mouth. "How's this?"

"Peachy. You were saying?"

"Jacques has confessed everything," he announced, gratified that the rest of the party was nodding in acknowledgement that they could understand him. "It turns out that this whole... I can only call it a debacle... was just an elaborate means of..." he paused, hardly able to believe it himself, "selling us life insurance."

After a moment's silence, Darien laughed incredulously. "Life insurance?" His voice was about an octave higher than usual and it quavered in an insistent whine.

Jack nodded grimly and Hobbes emitted a low whistle. There was another protracted silence before Sandburg muttered, "Man, Jim. I sure hope you were right about those beers."

 

***

 

Shortly after the truth came out about Barbara and her husband's insurance scam, the front desk clerk called to notify Jim that the local authorities had arrived. The subsequent exchange of information went surprisingly smoothly, largely thanks to Jackson's ability to facilitate communication with Mr. Peche. The poor kid still seemed to be having difficulty figuring out what language he was speaking at any given time but O'Neill was more than happy to help out on that front. After the first few incidents, he took to standing at the archaeologist's shoulder and pinching him anytime he got it wrong.

Once O'Neill and Jackson had finished relaying the particulars of the couple's dual confessions, Jim took the lead and laid out the additional evidence they had found. Fortunately, the locals didn't hassle him on his less-than-constitutional search of their belongings, which was just as taboo in Canada as it was in the U.S. They didn't even bother to ask him about it, which pegged them as either extremely sloppy or extremely good at covering their own asses. All told, it was less than an hour between the arrival of the authorities and the time they headed out the door, culprits in tow, to take down their official confessions at headquarters. It would have been even quicker if Hobbes hadn't spent fifteen minutes trying to convince them to take the waiter in for questioning as well.

In the elevator down to the hotel's combination lounge and bar, O'Neill filled them in on everything his C.O. had learned from the background check. It turned out that Barbara billed herself as a specialist in counseling men and women in high-risk professions. Her firm did a lot of work with cops, firemen, and military types and as the workshop coordinator, she always assigned herself the attendees with the most extensive history of near-fatal injuries. There were no specifics about what actually went on in her little encounter groups but her clients inevitably wound up ponying up for a pricey life insurance policy within a few weeks of the session. Her husband had shattered every record at his agency for the number of premium policies sold. His commission must have been through the roof.

When they piled out of the elevator on the lounge level it was deadly quiet and they realized that the rest of the federal employees must still be in their respective sessions. In the day's first stroke of good fortune their group was able to colonize the bar's prime location: a couch and several plush chairs situated near the huge fireplace at the head of the room. Although it was barely late afternoon, a fire was already blazing and Jim relished in the crisp odor of kindling that had never been within fifty miles of city smog.

Fawkes bounded over the back of the sofa and sprawled across it, his long limbs taking up every available bit of space, but he was swiftly reprimanded by Hobbes, who swatted at his partner's legs until he begrudgingly made room for him. In his typically professorial desire to feel like he was holding court, Blair selected the tall leather wing-back next to the fire. Jim couldn't help but smirk at the fact that his torn jeans, faded flannel, and unruly curls combined with his environment to create the seeming of a Masterpiece Theater episode gone horribly, horribly awry.

In contrast, Jackson planted himself in a chair set slightly apart from the others. He had been uncharacteristically reticent, obviously troubled by the effects the sodium pentathol was having on his faculties, but O'Neill was unwilling to allow his partner to segregate himself. He sallied up behind Jackson's chair and blithely scooted it in closer to the others. Startled at the sudden motion, Jackson gripped the arms of the chair and glared up at O'Neill in annoyance but he made no effort to scoot it back again.

"Good work today, boys," O'Neill declared, leaning with both arms on the chair's high back. His half-smile conveyed his full approval. "First round's on me. Beer okay with everyone?"

There were nods of agreement throughout the group, with one notable exception. "I think I'd better stick with coffee," Jackson said, his brow drawn in an expression of inexplicable self-recrimination.

"Coffee," O'Neill repeated. "Coffee. Daniel, how can you even *think* of having coffee after what happened today?"

The archaeologist shrugged. "I like coffee."

"BEER, Daniel."

"Or beer works." He answered as if in a daze, his tense expression relaxing as he stared off in the distance.

"Ha!" O'Neill replied, clapping his hands triumphantly. "A suggestible linguist. Now *this* I could get used to." He turned to Jim with a wry grin. "Hey, you think they sell sodium pentathol wholesale?"

"You know what? Never mind," snapped Jackson testily, shaking his head to try and clear it. "Coffee. I want coffee."

He punctuated this remark with a sour frown, confirming Jim's suspicions that if Jackson put his mind to it he could be pissier than Sandburg on a bad hair day. O'Neill, however, was well schooled in coping with this kind of behavior and said simply, "Coffee it is. Hey, Ellison, you want to give me a hand?"

"Sure," Jim agreed, falling in step with the colonel as they made their way to the bar. "And you can call me Jim."

"Swell," he replied, sticking out his hand for their first formal greeting. "Jack."

Jim shook his hand, satisfied in the assurance that his initial assessment of this man had been bang-on. He was a good leader, a smart tactician, and the kind of guy who probably always volunteered to buy the first round. Most importantly, he was a tough guy who liked to hang around with geeky anthropologists, proving once and for all that Jim wasn't alone in the world. He smiled. All things considered, it hadn't been that bad of a day.

 

***

 

"What are you, some kind of Commie?" Hobbes squinted suspiciously at Curly, who had gone off on a wild tangent about capitalist something-something-something-or-other. He had lost track of the argument a few sentences in but it sounded distinctly unpatriotic.

"Expressing dissatisfaction with certain aspects of an economic philosophy does not equate to a flat rejection of that philosophy as a whole," Curly prattled back, gesticulating wildly as he spoke. "All I'm saying is that there are elements within the American business infrastructure that exploit the benefits of capitalism inappropriately. The legal system is an obvious example, but the insurance companies are almost as bad. Take the 'act of God' clause, for instance. It exemplifies the kind of industry-saturated responsibility avoidance that would never be tolerated in a more strongly regulated market."

Hobbes narrowed his eyes and regarded Curly skeptically. The kid babbled twice as fast as the Keeper when she was high as a kite on that crazy chatterbox drug and he made about half as much sense. He turned to Fawkes with an uncertain frown. "Did you get any of that, partner?"

Fawkes smiled in that way that Hobbes always found deeply troubling and then his expression became suddenly serious. "Yeah," he said, bobbing his head. "I think he just admitted to being a Commie." Then he grinned again and looked up at Curly, who snorted in amusement, like the post-Iron-Curtain threat of communism was a big friggin' joke.

He glared at them both, annoyed at how damn pleased with themselves they were, particularly Fawkes who knew perfectly well how this kind of anti-American propaganda pushed his buttons. Once the chuckleheads had finished tittering at their own cleverness and settled down, Hobbes pressed his lips together and formulated his eloquent rebuttal. "Pricks."

 

***

 

With the newfound knowledge that two beers and a coffee were a lot harder to carry than three beers, Jack returned to the group in the midst of a heated argument between Sandburg and Hobbes. Jim had dawdled at the bar and was lagging several steps behind him, displaying a marked reluctance to return to the conversation that lent further support to Daniel's theory about his sensory abilities. God knows, if Jack had realized what kind of mess they'd be returning to he wouldn't have been all that eager to get back either. There was a brief lull in the "discussion" as the drinks were distributed but it started right up again the moment everyone was settled.

After less than a minute it became apparent that this was one of those arguments that had no hope whatsoever of ever being resolved. A battle between blind patriotism and self-indulgent theory, it droned on and on without making the least bit of headway. At one point Sandburg made mention of the economic influence of the Invisible Hand, which Hobbes mistook to be a terrorist movement, leading to yet another long string of misunderstandings on both sides. Jack sighed. The exchange was farcical enough to be mildly entertaining at the moment but it had already entered its inevitable decline into grating.

Daniel, he noticed, had wisely chosen to stay out of the argument entirely. He was paying close attention, staring fixedly at the combatants with his fingers curled lovingly around his coffee mug, but showed no inclination to jump into the mix. Now maybe this was because he didn't care enough to bother, or maybe he wasn't sufficiently schooled in economic theory to boot Sandburg off his high horse. Jack couldn't really be sure but he suspected that a more likely explanation was a matter of practicality, namely that anytime someone mentioned Marx, Daniel felt suddenly compelled to start shouting things in German.

The whole fiasco culminated in what could only be termed Sandburg's Grand Finale. Having finally yammered poor Hobbes into submission, he launched into an extended diatribe berating the insurance companies and the personal claims legal system before eviscerating the whole of governmental middle-management for being efficiently redundant and redundantly inefficient. He borrowed liberally from the incomprehensible vocabulary of market analysts and long-dead philosophers to construct some kind of rhetorical utopian anthropo-econo-socio-something that Jack couldn't have cared less about.

When Sandburg finally finished his tirade, it was met with utter silence. Jim sat quietly tending to the stuffing that had leaked out of his armchair, carefully tucking it back into the upholstery whilst wearing the resigned, long-suffering smile of a man who knows he has the undying pity of every other man in the room. Hobbes frowned quizzically, his lips slightly parted and brow furrowed as if deliberating whether to ask the definition of a word that had cropped up in the first sentence and prevented him from listening to the rest of the lecture. Fawkes smirked with amusement and looked desperately around the circle for anyone else who had thought it was funny.

Ultimately it was Daniel who broke the deafening silence. But rather than responding to Sandburg, he turned to Jack with an apprehensive frown. "Is that how I sound to you most of the time?" he murmured, inclining his head subtly towards the anthropologist.

Jack blinked back at him for a few moments and then offered an unconvincing shrug.

"Oh, god." Daniel buried his forehead in his hand and then looked up at Jack suddenly. "I think I'm ready for that beer now."

More than happy to oblige, Jack trotted back to the bar to get another pint and was immensely relieved to find that when he returned, all talk of economics and patriotism had dissipated.

"So now what?" Hobbes was saying as Jack reclaimed his seat. "We've got the rest of a long-weekend to kill with nary a Communication Counselor to be found."

"They might just reassign us to someone else," Blair suggested, causing Jim to grimace and take a deep swig of his beer.

"Uh, uh," said Jack. "No way." He paused, his eye caught by the two-foot bass that was mounted on the opposite wall. He lifted an eyebrow. "I say we head down to the lake. Do some fishing."

Jim and Sandburg exchanged a look of approval. "Fishing," Jim agreed.

"Right on, man."

His irritation with Sandburg apparently forgotten, Hobbes grinned. "Now *that's* the way to spend a long weekend, my friends."

Of course, there were two members of the party that were less enthused by this suggestion. "I suppose I could catch up on some reading," Daniel hazarded.

"Aw, come on," Fawkes griped, slumping back into the sofa. Then suddenly his expression changed and he bolted upright, leaning towards Daniel with the excitement of an attention-starved puppy. "Hey, you want to rent a Nintendo or something?"

Daniel blinked back at him for a few moments, his head cocked and slightly twitchy as he deliberated on how to respond. At length, he turned to face Jack. "You know, I'm thinking that maybe fishing wouldn't be so bad after all."

 

***

 

Despite the concerted efforts of providence, the federal government, and the new-age therapy movement to the contrary, the weekend turned out to be a highly enjoyable experience. Blair sighed contentedly as he heaved his bag into the back of Jim's pick-up and turned to lean against the door, waiting for him to finish up his conversation with the colonel. The weather had been beautiful and the fish plentiful enough that even the naysayers eventually relinquished their objections to the pastime. Daniel seemed to appreciate the quiet, meditative quality of the pursuit and even Darien stopped complaining when he finally realized that the actual "fishing" part wasn't mandatory and he could get away with drinking beer and bullshitting with his partner all day.

In the end the six of them had settled in to a comfortable, enjoyable rapport and Monday afternoon had rolled around all too quickly. They had taken their leave of the Fish and Game agents about ten minutes earlier when the pair boarded a Greenpeace anti-whaling schooner that was to be their transport back to San Diego. They never really explained why they were compelled to endure the nautical equivalent of hitchhiking for their trip home but since they had both seemed profoundly embarrassed by it, nobody had pressed the issue.

Blair had already said his goodbyes to Daniel, with hearty promises to correspond, as well as to Jack, who, miraculously enough, turned out to be not that bad of a guy. He saw enough of Jim's personality in the guy that he could appreciate how he and Daniel could be such close friends, but it troubled him that he never seemed to smile, even when he purported to be content. Of course, Daniel didn't smile much either so in that sense he was a good match for Jack, but Blair found himself wondering whether the pair of them were ever able to just hang out and relax - whether they could enjoy the simple pleasure of each other's company the way he and Jim did. Despite their obvious affection for one another there was a slightly stilted element to their interactions that he felt might prevent that, and he considered it a shame. They were both good men who deserved to be happy, and he was fairly certain that neither of them was.

As their respective partners finished up their tete-a-tete, Blair offered a final, congenial nod to Daniel, who was waiting patiently next to the passengers' dock, and swung himself into the truck, which was already in the queue for the ferry's vehicle hold. He noticed that the cars ahead of him were starting to move and leaned over to give a quick honk of the horn, warning Jim that they had to get moving. The two men exchanged a final handshake before Jim trotted back to the pick-up and Jack, adopting a more casual gait, strolled off to rejoin his friend.

Donning his Jags' cap as he approached, Jim climbed into the driver's seat just in time to ease them forward before they started causing congestion in the line. "Sorry about that, Chief," he offered. "Got kind of caught up talking to Jack."

"No problem." Blair shrugged and let his arm hang past the window so he could drum his fingers on the outside of the door. "So what was that all about? Did he want to swap anthropologists or something?"

Jim chuckled and offered him a sideways smile. "Well, he offered to, but I turned him down."

"You sure that was the right decision, Jim?" he joked, smiling back at his partner until his attention was diverted by a couple of seagulls swooping down into the waters beyond the dock. "Daniel's a pretty smart guy. He might have been able to teach you a thing or two."

Jim adjusted the brim of his cap, squinting to gauge the distance between their front fender and the slow-moving Honda Civic in front of him. "You may be right," he replied. "But something tells me that Jackson would be even worse at staying in the truck than you are. I don't care how damn smart he is: he wouldn't be worth the aggravation."

Blair snorted appreciatively as they edged their way towards the water, the age-oxidized walls of the ferry stained russet by the setting sun behind them. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said.

They waited in companionable silence for a few minutes before Jim cleared his throat, tapping his palms awkwardly against the steering wheel. "It's still just unbelievable to me that those two work with aliens. I mean, they're just regular guys like you and me."

"I think there's even more to it than that," Blair pointed out. "Daniel is probably the only person on earth that can speak any form of Ancient Egyptian aloud, let alone some obscure dialect. That has to mean something."

Jim frowned. "Like what?"

"Honestly? I have no idea." Blair shook his head, wishing he had something more substantial to offer. "But I'm hoping to find out. When we get home I'm going to check out his publication history. See what he was up to before he hooked up with the Air Force."

"Good idea. It couldn't hurt to do a little digging. Find out what it is that they actually do."

"Well, I'm not making any promises," Blair said guardedly. "It's obviously got to be top secret, but I might be able to deduce something from Daniel's most recent papers and conference abstracts." He indulged himself in a thoughtful pause before adding, "And it's got to be easier than figuring out what the hell is the deal with the Fish and Game guys."

Jim laughed, surprised but obviously not displeased with the abrupt subject change. "No kidding," he said. "I still can't figure those two out. One can turn invisible and the other's a top-caliber agent..."

"Well, maybe not *top* caliber," Blair chuckled, looking over at his partner in amusement. "Hobbes isn't exactly James Bond."

"Trust me, Chief," he replied, his expression suddenly serious. "The guy might be a mental-case but he knows what he's doing. I can tell."

Blair remained dubious. "If you say so..."
"Seriously," he averred. "Hobbes would be an asset anywhere: the Bureau... the Agency... probably even the damn NSA. So what's he doing with Fish and Game?"

Blair considered this question a moment and then laughed as he caught sight of the distant schooner chugging its way southward. "Well at the moment he's probably accusing the harrowed crew of the Rainbow Warrior of being communists."

"Can't argue with that," Jim admitted through a half-concealed grin.

After a few more minutes the Civic managed to get its act together and it was finally their turn to board the ferry. Jim navigated the truck onto the lift and then followed the dockworker's directions to guide them to their spot in the hold, where they would remain for the duration of the voyage. Blair peered out the window contemplatively, mulling over a subject that had been troubling him for much of the weekend. He was hesitant to bring it up, but he knew it would plague him if they didn't hash it out.

"You think any of the others suspect anything, Jim? About us, I mean?"

Jim shook his head. "I doubt it. They're good, Chief, but they're not that good. Besides, if they had any kind of an inkling I'm pretty sure they would have given themselves away at some point."

"You're probably right," Blair replied, relieved by this assurance that their sentinel/guide relationship had not been exposed. "It's kind of cool, don't you think? We came away from this weekend knowing all of their secrets but they never picked up on us." He paused, reconsidering the point. "You really think they don't suspect?"

Jim smiled as he reached over to genially tousle his hair. "Sandburg, they haven't got a clue."

 

***

 

Darien leaned against the chill metal of the railing, contemplating the silhouette of the island as it receded into the distance until his reverie was broken by a gaudily adorned coconut being shoved in front of his face. It was decorated with umbrellas, a crazy straw, and three or four colorful plastic monkeys, and it bore the strong odor of rum. Hobbes was presenting the object with a look of sheer triumph while he busily sipped at his own drink through the side of his mouth.

"Hobbes," said Darien with abject astonishment as he accepted the proffered coconut. "How the hell did you manage to drum up tropical drinks on a Greenpeace protest schooner?"

"I have my ways," Hobbes assured him with a shrewd smile. "So what's on your mind, Fawkesy? You've got that blank stare thing going on."

He shrugged and gazed back out at the ocean. "I was just thinking... a couple of alien hunters, a hippie anthropologist, and a 'Smell you later.' It's like we're some kind of freak magnets or something."

"I kind of liked them," Hobbes replied earnestly, pulling a sword-skewered cherry out of his drink and divesting the plastic blade of its fruit. "Even Curly wasn't so bad when he decided to shut up once and a while."

"Oh, I liked them too," Darien agreed, turning sideways to face his partner. "I'm just saying they were a little odd. Is it just me, or do we never seem to meet anyone normal?"

This hardship didn't seem to trouble Hobbes, who craned over the railing to watch the frigid ocean lap at the ship's hull. "Normal's kinda dull if you ask me," he observed. "But I think it's a testament to our skill and the quality of our partnership that they never caught on to our particular brand of abnormality. Those guys are good, but they're no match for Bobby Hobbes, Darien Fawkes, and the old I-man shuffle."

"The old I-man shuffle," Darien chanted in agreement. He sipped at his drink as the reddening sun dipped into the horizon. "We make a hell of a 'couple' don't we, Hobbesy?"

Hobbes just gazed into the distance and smiled. "You bet your invisible ass we do."

 

***

 

The private conference between Jack and Jim was abruptly halted when Blair honked the horn to signal that the convoy of automobiles was on the move. Daniel had been waiting patiently at the dock, leaning against a wooden pylon and flipping through a too-long-ignored reference text in which he still hadn't made any headway. The sound of the horn made him look up in surprise, and a moment later Jack was striding towards him with his hands plunged into his pockets, kicking a stone as he went along.

Daniel tilted his head curiously when he arrived, unable to interpret his ambiguous expression. "So, did you ask him?"

"Yup." Jack shielded his eyes and looked over at the sun before squinting up at the stacks of the ferry.

"And what did he say?"

Jack shrugged and gave the rock a final kick, sending it skittering into the water. "He said thanks but no thanks. He likes being a cop. And Sandburg still has to finish his thesis."

"Too bad," Daniel sighed. "Blair would have made a valuable addition. The SGC does a fair job of finding competent archaeologists but we could really use another good cultural analyst."

"Hey, don't forget about Jimbo," Jack protested, sounding almost affronted at the slight. "He's no slouch either, you know."

"Oh, I agree," Daniel replied adamantly. "His abilities as a Suyaylla, if properly honed, could be a huge asset. With training he might be able to detect trace amounts of Naquadah. Or sense the presence of a Goa'uld by its protein marker, the way people who have been implanted with symbiotes can."

With a slightly bored expression, Jack offered another non-committal shrug. "I guess we'll never know."

"Evidently not," said Daniel, frowning. Alerted to the fact that Jack didn't feel like talking about Ellison's rejection of his invitation just yet, he decided to divert the subject elsewhere. "And what about the Fish and Game agents? You didn't go offering *them* jobs, I notice."

Cracking a slight smile, Jack reached for his bag and hefted it over his shoulder before starting towards the boarding plank. Daniel hastily tucked his book under his arm and snatched up his own bag, hastening to catch up.

"I have to confess that those two clowns have kind of grown on me," Jack admitted as they made their way up the platform. "But as useful as an invisible recon man would be, we have enough trouble keeping track of the operatives that we *can* see. Besides, I don't think Fawkes would do too well in the military."

"It's a bit too far afield from his native habitat?" Daniel suggested, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible.

"No, I just think he's too much of a smart-ass," Jack replied, missing the point of Daniel's statement entirely. "And that accusation really means something, coming from me."

Daniel could hardly contest that assessment. "And Hobbes?"

Jack winced, grabbing at a support pole and swinging himself onto the stairs that led to the upper deck. "Hobbes is a good man," he said, his voice slightly elevated so it would carry in the stronger wind of the higher ground. "I'll give him that. But I think it's inevitable that at some point... some point very early on... Teal'c would find himself compelled to shoot him."

"A valid concern," Daniel agreed, both amused and disturbed by the likely accuracy of the prediction. He followed Jack up the stairs and along the narrow strip of deck that rimmed the topmost level of the ferry. The flurry of activity on the dock promised that they would be embarking for Cascade in the near future and he couldn't help but let his thoughts drift back to the unrealized promise of the Suyaylla and his partner. "I still think it's still a shame about Jim and Blair," he observed. "They would have been an excellent addition to the Stargate program. They're a lot like us, after all."

"Ya think?" For once in his life, Jack didn't appear to intend the remark as sarcastic.

"What?" asked Daniel, surprised. "You don't think they're like us?"

Jack shrugged and peered over the edge of the deck to watch the blue and white pick-up make its way towards the hold. "I don't know," he hedged, considering his words as he led them into the covered observation deck. "Those two don't have the same rapport we have. The same chemistry."

"You mean they don't argue enough."

He took in a deep breath. "There's that," he conceded, tossing his bag into an empty booth and sliding in after it. "But there's also the fact that we're a lot better looking."

 

***

 

On the roof of the lodge stood a solitary figure, watching intently as the ferry glided eastward and the Greenpeace schooner slogged its way south. He was seventeen years old and gangly, with a voice that cracked and a brutal case of acne. Yet these exterior weaknesses belied a sharp mind guided by a stolid, amoral soul. The wind arose, screaming in from the western sea, and he shrugged into his red waiters' jacket to stave off the cold and pulled a compact radio from the inside pocket.

"Agent 4X9 to base. Come in base. Over."

"This is base. Go ahead, 4X9. Over."

"Mission aborted. Secondary party attempted parallel attack. Over."

"Roger that, 4X9. Did you dispatch secondary party? Over."

"Party dispatched by targets and unanticipated allies, aided by information leaked by self. As with original targets, said allies demonstrate unique skill set. Suggest expansion of surveillance to include all. Over."

"Base advised. Good work, 4X9. Take a few days off and report back for reassignment. Transmission ends."

Zits nodded and tucked the radio back into his pocket, smiling with satisfaction as the American vessels wended contentedly towards their homeland. The poor bastards would never see it coming.

End.