John, his grandfather and his partner were sadly watching the anxious way Maria watched her father now or broke his heart in a dozen little ways. Like the way she nervously made sure to be where she could always see him, looked up from her toys every few minutes and and finally just brought her dolls up on the couch and sat touching him. Her eyes also kept checking Roy's location, making sure he was still nearby...just in case.

"Daddy's right here, baby." John told her softly. "Not going anywhere, except the camping trip...and that's all four of us."

Roy looked over at his partner. Gage had just picked Maria up and sat her on his lap to cuddle the uneasy girl. She was heavy-lidded and relaxing now. She would be back asleep in a minute if he kept it up Roy knew.

Her great grandfather's wise old eyes took in everything. "Yes, your partner and friend will also be needed, for his is the other primary connection she has made." He finally told the young men. "She will be unlikely to make another primary one, she might have a few handfuls of secondary and auxiliary links in somewhat larger numbers, but I believe the two of you will be her only primary ones. Since Roy is married, she is unlikely to ever form a mating bond or give you grandchildren, John, unless she adopts. At this time, I am uncertain how strong the primary links are going to become. However, the pair of you are both vital if she is to remain sane. Little Maria is just that strong of an Empath."

As John curled protectively around his daughter, DeSoto nodded, "We become as strong as we need to, then. She is not my blood, but she is still my family because she is your daughter." He told John, quite firmly. Turning his head to the older man next to him, "Even if she were not, she's a seven-year-old who needs me. That's all I need to know." the modern druid priest told the shaman, professional to professional.

The Shaman and the Druid did not have the same Gifts, but they did overlap and the pair could work together. Roy suspected the old man was also much like the two on the couch across from him. His Gifts were telling him there were two Johns in the room, one over on the couch and the other next to him. He smiled slightly at the old man and told him so.

The older spiritualist gave a low chuckle. "That is good, for, to mine, you feel as though you are his twin, fraternal, but still a twin. I suspected we looked much the same to your senses. My grandson has said many times he has mistaken me for you and you for me, when walking into a room in his home, thinking I had come to visit."

Johnny felt her breathing shutter slightly as she turned to lay her head on his shoulder and smelled a hint of saline near her face. He laid his cheek on top of her head, rubbing her back soothingly and looked at DeSoto and his grandfather knowing his little Maria's eyes were probably bright with unshed tears that they could both see.

"Sun's up and the horses are ready, let's get you dressed; it's time to head out." He told her. "Hopefully you'll just attract mustangs...or smallish birds. But, I have my falconry license just in case, so...we're set."

Out of her hearing but well within the old man's, DeSoto muttered, "'And a high end, multiple animal exotic pet license. Not to mention the housing permits, cages for possible large felines to satisfy the requirements for exotic large predator species, or the new pastures.'"

He caught old Spiritwind's low laughter. "You took that well."

"My Uncle had an apprentice once who attracted and attached over forty hunting birds, not one of which used a mews or hood or anything of the sort." He informed him. "I was a child, I had not even entered training, for I was too young for that...but I remember. He had everything from jays to eagles...and they all got along fine. He also had three African lions, two females and a male, which he picked up traveling across the Rift Valley...they shocked the tribesmen down there, dropped to heel and followed him back to his tent. Just as calm and tame as you please. Both the girls were heavily pregnant and the cubs they bore later bonded to him as well. At least the first litters. Most of the cubs of later litters found homes in various zoos, five are in San Diego at the wild animal park, all healthy males."

"Ah. No wonder you were able to settle her so quickly."

"At least I knew what not to do when she was like that...and Maria...she's a lot stronger than Vinnie was. He was also pretty solid in his training at the time, the Empathy was the last Gift to bring to what we refer to as 'last' maturity...he'd had it at a lower level for a while though and he himself was fully adult and not traumatized."

The shaman nodded sharply. "You are a good partner for them both...and a good alternative parent for the child." He reached for the reins his grandson handed to him and the trio mounted, their packhorses were already tied to the saddles. Maria was held in front of her father, facing him so she could nap and still see him first when she woke. She was dressed warmly and wore thick socks in insulated little miniature high-topped work boots that guarded her small ankles, he tucked a thick blanket around her and over her small head, she wore a warm knit hat and mittens, in the chilly dawn as well..

It was earlier than she was usually up and she had not been sleeping well or for long. John knew his nearness, the warmth and the motion of his horse would knock her out so she would get needed rest. He made sure she was comfortable, glanced at the others and clicked to his horse, moving out. His grandfather's horse led the packhorses, following Roy who, while he was a decent rider, was not as expert as the Gages of either generation.

As soon as she was out cold and snoring, John decided to explain something to Roy.

"She thought I was denying her the right to be my daughter. Like I said, she knows you're druid-trained and you feel like me to most sensitives. When she asked if she could come home with you if I didn't return, she was asking for Heart Room, not Hearth Room."

"I know she was, I agreed to that. And I still do, because she already has it."

"I know. Did she call you anything odd before she drifted off to sleep?"


John waited.


"Tagged me with Tall Gentle Man the day I brought her home. To her, you're a great deal more than just an uncle, now. Once I get the parent-child bond set and the link stabilizes, the critters finally stop showing up, then she's likely to start fussing over you too."

"No, grandson...he is already her second Primary. A First Father is linked, the second is not...usually he's either just support or one develops without any rites or rituals needed...instinctively."

"Yeah, I told him that weeks ago." Roy told Spiritwind dryly. Let's see if he can recall what the lesson was."

"John?" The old voice prodded.

Johnny leveled a flat stare at his partner, then finally sighed. "The first one, the Shaman guided one, is to show both parent and child what a bond looks like...from the inside. If the parent already knows and makes the offer of support for the child in his own soul, it develops naturally from that."

"Correct." Roy and Spiritwind said in unison, startling them both and making both chuckle. Spiritwind looked over at his counterpart. "You are a good teacher."

"Thank you. This isn't the only strong gift she has and there was one that needed immediate guidance...I do try not to allow Storm Calling to go without Gifts skipped my children's generation, just as it skipped my dad and only showed in his brother. It might show in my grandchildren or not, but I've got three nieces who have it, which are being trained by seniors in the Druidic Circle near their home. My sister married an Englishman and they in the U.K.. However for many years, they lived three houses down from me and...Storm Calling rises early in those who have it. They were causing thunderstorms by the time they were three and Vicky didn't meet Standish until they were ten, ergo..."

"So it is natural for you to spot such things and take them in hand: Just as I train Maria and her father."

"Yes. Sometimes, the things we get up to on duty sometimes freak our captain and shift mates right out: But they deal with the weirdness, accept it and us and keep their mouths shut."

"That is good. You have mundane support and good friends."

"Yes." John confirmed, nodded and turned his horse's head up a steeper trail. He had a goal in mind for the noon camp...intending to get some fishing in. They were not in a rush, the travel time was a part of the thing, allowing Maria's support to grow every closer to the child's heart and calm her before the ceremony. They would travel as long as they needed to for that calm to come to the child. It broke his heart, but the truth was, the deeper into the wilderness he took her, the more she'd relax...because she knew there was no way he'd ever leave someone in a place like this unless they knew what they were doing and left the group on their own. So, she slept a bit more soundly with every hoofbeat.

That belief had nothing to do with the empathetic gift and only relied on common sense and logic. The seven-year-old would not be thinking in those terms, for her it would be instinctive. He doubted she'd even be able to articulate how she felt, not yet having the concept library in her young head, nor the needed vocabulary. She would just know and it was enough for her. It would have to be enough for her father, at least for now. It allowed her to trust him again; he needed that from the midget sitting on his thighs and snuggled against his belly.

He looked up into two pairs of caring, worried eyes.

"You okay, pal?" Roy asked gently.

"I will be as soon as she is."

"He feels her echoing disquiet." Spiritwind told the young druid. "But, grandson, it is only disquiet now, instead of pain and fear. She improves."

"True. She does. With every step further into wilderness she does."

He knew the old shaman understood this time, and Roy did not. He also knew when Spiritwind understood he had no intentions of explaining it to DeSoto, the old man would take his young counterpart off out of Maria's earshot and explain it himself. The glint in his grandfather's eyes told him that. Well, that and long experience with his grandfather's ways.

"Why would that matter?"

"I will explain later. I think it is too painful for young John to do so."

Roy looked at the expression in John's dark eyes and sighed. "Okay. Good enough. We will keep that conversation to the professionals and allow your senior apprentice to tend his child."

John winced. Roy had figured out that he, John, was not yet confirmed as a full shaman.

"He does have much to learn yet, this is true." Spiritwind agreed. "This is why my presence is needed for the ceremony. If he were confirmed, he could do it himself with just yourself and his young one."

"Yeah, finally figured that out. Well, I'm used to being the senior partner, this isn't that different."

"Bit more equal on the squad, don't you think?" John protested. "I know I'm just as accurate and a lot faster. And you're only fourteen weeks senior! You got the same lessons from the same trainers that I did and my scores were higher!"

Roy laughed. "Gotcha."

"Aw man..." He moaned as his grandfather snickered at him. "Just shut up and ride, Roy."

The two 'professionals' both chuckled but let it go. They now knew where the two of them stood and where John did, on a different level.

As for Roy, now he knew when to shift from 'partner' to 'priest', could adjust to suit changing conditions and he also knew he had a good co-worker on the magical front...he was in solid accord with John's 'apprentice-master'.

John was blushing in embarrassment because he'd seen the the expression on his partner's face...for this trip, he was seen as a student, rather than an equal.



"You need the support: Settle down and just accept it."

"He is correct, my grandson."

"Yeah, he is. At least he's not Kelly." He admitted, the last bit making Roy snort.

At around nine in the morning, the blanket came off, at ten, he removed her hat, coat and mittens and at eleven, the too warm Maria started waking up as the horses slowed, entering a big grassy area near a wide, shallow stream. She sat up, looking into her dad's face as he bowed his head to look down at her squirming little form.

"You slept all morning, sleepyhead."

"Gotta pee." Her voice was a bit urgent.

He looked over to Roy who was already on the ground. "Want to let Roy help you take care of that?" He asked as he dug a roll of paper out of his left saddlebag and a hemorrhoid ring-cushion for a toilet seat from the right one and held it up for her.

"Yeah." She had looked around and listened, not even a hint of traffic or a town was detected.

"Okay." tossed his grandfather the ring and roll and lifted his daughter down into Roy's hands. "I'll picket and rub down the horses and when you're done, you and Roy can help my grandfather get camp set up while I begin to get the rods set up. Except for Roy's fly rod, setting his basket and stuff out will be plenty."

"Okay, daddy." She clung to Roy's neck, looked at him and wagged a finger at him. "No snakes unless you're gonna kill it for lunch. They don't like being peed on."

"I was hoping for fish today, actually. And no peeing on any snakes sounds good." Roy agreed, grinning at her as he took her supplies from a chortling Spiritwind, then carried her off a ways behind a small boulder with a close grouping of several smaller ones which he put the ring on. After checking for bugs, spiders and snakes he helped her get her breeches down and her sat down on the ring. Her daddy brought a hand-trowel over and reminded her to cover up any bowel movements to hide the smell, causing her to nod solemnly.

"I wondered about that." Roy admitted in relief. "We'll be down in a bit."

"Thought you might have, city-boy." John chuckled, and Roy knew their complicated dynamics had shifted again.