Educating Angels

Part Three

by Lacy

See notes and disclaimer in Part One

********************
Chapter Seventeen

"Guys?" Maggie interrupted their thoughts of dark government conspiracies with her husky tones. "I don't know about you, but I'd feel a lot better if I could take care of Cecilia."

"Oh, man! I'm so sorry, Maggie. I guess we just got caught up in the mystery of it all." Blair picked his discarded backpack up from the dirt floor of the cave and dragged it over to Maggie and Cecilia, where he unceremoniously dumped its contents. He dug threw the pile of items to find the emergency first aid kit. It was not as well stocked as the one in his duffel bag back at Command, but it had everything they would need for this situation. "Jim?" Blair waved his partner over.

"Yeah?"

"You're gonna have to do the honors, man." Blair handed him the included pair of latex gloves.

Jim snapped the gloves on with the expertise of a doctor -- or a detective. "Is this gonna hurt her?" Jim's worried glance slid over to Maggie.

Maggie shook her head. "She won't feel a thing. Not while she's in this state." Maggie gently stroked Cecilia's golden hair, never taking her eyes off of her friend.

"Okay, Maggie, I'm gonna need you to turn her over a bit more so I can reach the wound. Sandburg, I need alcohol." Blair passed him the alcohol wipes. "Thread the needle and douse it in alcohol, Chief."

Jim removed the makeshift bandage and cleansed Cecilia's wound while he waited for Blair to thread the needle. Maggie had taken the flashlight from Blair and pointed the beam at Blair's hands so that he could see what he was doing. When the needle had been painstakingly threaded he handed it over to Jim.

"I'm not much for sutures," Jim said, "but here goes nothing."

Blair and Maggie remained quiet, aware that Jim was using his Sentinel eyesight to stitch the wound closed, and not wanting to break his concentration. Ten minutes passed before Jim released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Blair quietly handed Jim the scissors so that he could snip the extra thread.

"Betadine, Chief."

Blair passed Jim a small vial of the dark liquid and a gauze pad to apply it. Jim could see, even in the darkness, as the betadine turned mustard yellow against Cecilia's pale skin. Next, Blair passed a large cotton pad to cover the wound, and a roll of gauze stripping to secure the pad to her leg. Jim placed the pad over the wound and then wrapped the gauze around the outside of Cecilia's jeans, and secured it with several pieces of medical tape.

"That'll take care of it for now until we can get her to a hospital." Jim sat back on his heels and removed the latex gloves, covered in blood and betadine. Blair held out a small plastic bag intended for disposal of the medical waste and Jim deposited the gloves inside. He grasped Cecilia's shoulder and gently eased her prone body onto her back.

"Now, it's time for you to go to work, Maggie." Jim looked at her as though she were about to perform the world's greatest magic trick.

Maggie had never performed for observers before and she suddenly found herself feeling extremely vulnerable.

Blair, sensing her unease and the reasons for it, placed a hand on her shoulder. "You've trusted us this far, Maggie. Trust us a little further," he pleaded. She stared into his rich blue eyes and saw the compassion there and wondered briefly why she hadn't noticed it before. She nodded, took a deep relaxing breath and closed her eyes.

Jim, intrigued by the process, tuned in to Maggie's biorhythms. With each breath her heart slowed until it matched Cecilia's steady beat. 'How does she do that?' He wondered. There must be something in the link. Maggie's respiration became slower and slower until it took Sentinel hearing and sight to know that the woman was still alive.

"Wherever she's going, Chief, I think she's there."

Blair's eyes were glazed over as he had tuned into Maggie to watch her every move and breath.

"Chief?" Jim grasped Blair's cheek and turned the younger man's to face to his.

********************

"Maggie, you found me."

"I'll always find you, Ceec. I always know where you go." Maggie extended her arm to indicate the garden bursting with flora of all kinds. Bright rays of sunshine streamed into the Garden, which was surrounded by an enormous brick wall with no visible means of entry. There was only one way in and one way out, and physical doors were not required. The walls were crawling with ivy and vines of roses. Red and yellow roses, the romantically pungent lavenders, and the ethereally beautiful Fire and Ice, climbed up and over the wall, disappearing beyond the bright sunshine. A weeping willow stood in the center of the Garden, serving as its lone sentry and its lone point of sadness.

Maggie looked down at herself. She still wore the jeans and windbreaker she had been wearing in the cave. Whenever she had come here lately, her clothes had been the same as those on the physical plane. Cecilia wore a flowing white gown that covered her hands and her hair was beautifully coifed in golden ringlets.

As children, they had come to the Garden to escape the dreariness of the physical world. Here, they were princesses. Here, they were magicians and here, no sadness could touch them. Somewhere along the line, Maggie had grown up and put aside her childish dreams but -- forever the Romantic -- Cecilia had not. In the outside worlld, Cecilia could put aside all the secrets she held in her silent heart, but here they were free to run wild, or take control. Sometimes, Maggie could forget just how much of a dreamer Cecilia was -- until they came to the Garden.

"We have to go back, Ceec." Maggie held out her hand.

Cecilia stepped back, the serenity slipping from her face. She turned from Maggie, pretending not to have heard her statement, and reached her hand into the sky. Maggie watched as a monarch butterfly floated down to land on Cecilia's outstretched finger. "I've been waiting so long for you to join me, Maggie."

"There was danger, Ceec, but it's passed. You can come back now." Maggie slowly approached her friend.

"And the pain? Has that passed as well?"

"Not yet…."

"Then I'll stay here for a while longer," Cecilia interrupted.

"I can make the pain stop, Ceec. He showed me how. He told me all about it."

Cecilia sank down onto a marble bench that seemed to appear from nowhere. "I don't know, Maggie. I just don't know." Her voice had lost its dreamlike quality and had become more like her voice in the physical. "You know I wouldn't have left you all alone, right? You know that?"

"I know that, Cecilia."

"I knew you would be safe with them, and that if you were safe I would be safe. I just…everything was on fire, Mags. Every single nerve in my body was screaming bloody murder. I couldn't stand the screaming." Inexplicably, Cecilia's flowing dress began to shift and change form to reveal a bloodstained pair of blue jeans.

"I know, Ceec. I know. I don't want that to ever happen again. Come back with me so that we can fix it together. Please?"

"I'm so weak, Maggie. You were always the strong one. You always knew how to hide your feelings." A single tear dropped down Cecilia's rosy cheek.

"You're not weak, Ceec. You've had to put up with a lot. A lot more than most people, I can tell you that. And look at you…you survived, and you flourished. That's the best kind of strength, you know. The kind that gets you quietly through each and every day." Maggie knelt on the soft grass and clasped her hands over Cecilia's.

"You really think so?"

"Yes. And you know what else I know?"

"What?"

"I know that you are the best thing that ever happened to me. I know that if you hadn't come to the Mac, I wouldn't have survived another week in that lonely hell I had made for myself. I know that you are my family. And also, I know that I'm not leaving here without you and that Jim and Blair need our help."

"Jim?"

"Yeah. Big things are brewing out there, Ceec, and it's going to take everything we've got to make it through this." Maggie watched as the remainder of the white gown shifted to become the dark blue of the USMS windbreaker. "That's good, Cecilia."

"It's going to hurt, Mags. More pain than I've ever felt in my whole life."

"You've trusted me since the day we met. I know I haven't given you a whole lot of reason to have faith in me, but I'm asking you to have faith in me now. Just take that leap of faith, Ceec, and trust that I won't let you fall. Just listen to sound of my voice, no matter how painful it gets. Listen to the sound of my voice and do what I tell you. Let me Guide you, Cecilia. Please, let me Guide you." Maggie's eyes brimmed over with unexpected tears as Cecilia nodded one last time, and her golden ringlets became limp and ragged.

********************

"What do you think is going on with them, Jim?"

"I don't know, Chief. Cecilia's heart rate has become periodically sporadic -- speeding up and slowing back down. Maggie's seems to be holding steady."

"You don't think she's in danger, do you?"

"No, I think they're okay. I can't believe I'm believing this." Jim's eyes moved over to the women lying on the floor of the cave. Any casual observer might have given up the two women for dead, but Jim, with his heightened senses, knew otherwise. Cecilia's eyes were still open in her stare of mock death, but Maggie's were closed and her face was expressionless.

"We can do this, Jim. I think we can do this."

"What are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"We already have the connection, right, Jim? You've been on the spirit plane through your own choice. Remember? When Incacha died and he told me to guide you to your animal spirit -- you found the spirit plane on your own."

"Where is this going?"

"Think about it, Jim. If we could build the bond, we could be fully aware of each other. We wouldn't need a stupid GPS tracker to know where the other is. No matter how far apart we were, we would always be just a connection away."

"But, I thought you said that it was abuse of the bond?"

"The empathic connection between Maggie and Cecilia is abuse of the bond, Jim. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a psychic connection."

"I'm not sure I want you that deep inside my head, Chief." Jim chuckled, but Blair could tell there was a deeper fear lying beneath the forced show of good humor. A fear that harked back to the days when they first met -- when Jim had been afraid to lay his entire life open for Blair.

"This isn't about reading your mind, Jim," Blair scoffed. "This is about awareness of your being. How much easier would it have been to find me in Lash's hideout if you had been able to call upon a psychic connection? It can work the other way too, Jim. What if, when Colonel Oliver kidnapped you, I had been able to use a connection to know you were alive, instead of just hoping and worrying?"

"I'll admit it might have certain advantages."

"Jim, I'm your Guide, but I'm also supposed to be a Shaman. I've spent years doing research on your Sentinel abilities, but always approaching it from a scientific point of view."

"So?"

"So, what if all the answers we need are on the spiritual side, man? What if the connection has all the answers? How can we pass up a chance like that? Look, I'm not saying this is something we can do today, or tomorrow, or even next year, Jim. I'm just saying that it might be something worth working towards. Just think about it, okay?"

"Okay, Chief. I'll think about it." Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder to silently let him know that his promise was a solemn one. A peaceful quiet settled over the cave.

It only lasted for a moment.

The sound of Cecilia gasping for air broke the easy silence. Her body, which had existed for so long on the bare minimum of oxygen, was suddenly in desperate need of fresh air. She shuddered uncontrollably as she continued the excruciating process of breathing. Jim moved over to her and took her seizing form in his arms. Had she been able, she would have screamed with the agony of it. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head leaving behind only the stark, eerie whites.

"Her heart rate is tachycardic," Jim said.

"What do we do, man?"

"Nothing we can do for now."

"Don't…." Jim and Blair's heads simultaneously snapped up at the sound of her voice. "Don't…touch. Hurts," she wheezed as her eyes came back into focus."

Jim gently released her, fearing that he might cause her even more pain as he set her down.

Maggie's breathing began to change, as well. With each cycle of breath she took in more and more oxygen until she reached a level approaching normality. When her respiration was significantly above that of the meditative state, her eyes opened and went directly to Cecilia's shivering body.

"Cecilia?" Maggie looked down into the face of her Sentinel. "Can you hear me?"

Cecilia's squinting eyes locked onto Maggie's and she nodded, her lips thinning in pain. "Hurts," she cried.

"I know it hurts, but I need you to breathe, Cecilia. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to relax as much as you can."

"Like…" Cecilia trailed off. "Jim taught," she finished.

Maggie looked at Jim for confirmation. He nodded.

"That's right, Ceec. Just like Jim taught."

The group watched quietly, holding their breaths, as Cecilia's nostrils took in air and her lips pursed out to release it. Her eyelids slipped down as she searched for that place in her mind that she had found earlier with Jim.

"That's good, Cecilia. Just relax and listen to my voice and do what I tell you. Are you ready?"

"Born ready," she grunted through tight lips. The skin around her mouth had become ashen as her tightening lips cut off the blood supply to the rest of her mouth.

"Hey, Ceec, you know that big stereo system you bought for the living room?" Cecilia grunted in response, but said nothing more. "Okay, you know how it has all those equalizer knobs that you play with, but I can never figure out how they work?"

Another grunt.

"What hurts the most, Cecilia?"

"Leg," she moaned.

"Okay, we'll do the leg first. I want you to close your eyes and picture an equalizer for your sense of touch. The pain thrumming through you leg means that the bass is all the way on high. Can you feel the bass?"

"Bass…too high. Making my whole body vibrate."

"Right. You have to lower the bass until you're not vibrating anymore. Can you do that? Do see the knob?"

Taking another breath, Cecilia nodded with a jerky movement. Beads of sweat had popped out all over her face. "I see the knob."

"Turn it down, Ceec. Lower it until there's a small amount of bass. Keep breathing. With each breath you take, lower the knob a little more. Can you do that?"

The pain on her face eased with each breath she exhaled, and the color began to slowly return to her face. Her eyes opened with a new clarity and she whispered, "The pain in my leg is gone."

Cecilia laughed -- a release of nervous energy -- and she looked over at Blair. Blair smiled, but waved her on, encouraging her to continue.

"What still hurts, Ceec?"

"My ears. Everything's too loud. Don't breathe so loud, Maggie."

"I'm sorry," she whispered in response. "Can you still hear me now?"

"Dumb question," Cecilia moaned.

Blair and Jim smiled at her words. At least she still had a sense of humor.

"Okay, Cecilia. We're going to do the same thing with your ears that we did with your touch. Do you understand?"

"I'm not deaf, girlfriend."

"Then let's do it. Close your eyes, maintain your breathing, and picture the equalizer. Let me know when you're there."

"Hello there, knob," Cecilia said with her eyes closed. That was quick.

"Go ahead and lower the bass to a manageable level."

Cecilia's respiration became easier and easier, no longer making the shuddering noise deep in her chest. The knots of tension in her shoulders began to release themselves. When she had lowered her hearing to a manageable intensity, she placed her palms on the dirt floor and lifted herself into a sitting position.

"Where the heck are we?"

Laughter echoed through the cave, and for the first time since she could remember, Cecilia did not cringe, but instead, smiled along with her friends.

Maggie threw her arms around her Sentinel. "It really worked?"

"Yeah," Cecilia sighed. "It really worked."

"How do you feel?" Jim asked.

"Like I've been put through the wringer -- twice." She smiled as she ran a hand through her flaccid locks. "Nobody answered my question. Where are we and what's going on?"

Maggie brought Cecilia up to date on their situation, while Jim and Blair went back to their preparations for implementing Blair's plan.

The entire scheme took an hour and a half to complete. Blair and Jim disappeared from the cave with their arms laden with weaponry, only to return empty-handed later to repeat the process. Once the arsenal was depleted the foursome decided to keep only the road flares and the army MREs. Jim made one last sweep of the perimeter before joining the others in a tasteless meal of dehydrated beef stroganoff and crackers.

********************
Chapter Eighteen

"What the hell do you mean you have no record of this case?" Simon Banks clung diligently to his temper even as he felt control slipping away. "I sent two of my men out there to retrieve a fugitive. I practically put them on that plane myself, so don't tell me you have no record of the case." He chewed mercilessly on an innocent cigar as he listened to the operator on the line question him.

"Ballast," he repeated for the umpteenth time since calling the United States Marshal Service Washington Field Office. "Deputy in Charge Clive Ballast. Well, no, I don't have it on me at the moment. Could you wait one moment?" Banks punched the button on his phone to open the direct line to his Admin. "Rhonda?"

"Yes, sir?" Rhonda's voice sounded hollow as it came through the intercom.

"Could you call down to the security desk and get the Watch Commander to give you Deputy Ballast's badge number from the login sheet?"

"I'm on it, Simon."

"Thank you, Rhonda."

"You're welcome, sir."

Simon dropped her from the line, and went back to the troublesome operator at the United States Marshal Service. "Please understand that two of my best men are missing in action, and that they left this city with one of your men. I have neither the time nor the patience to be getting the runaround. Am I making myself clear?" The authoritative tone of Banks' voice must have worked its magic, because the lines on Simon's face eased somewhat.

Simon listened for a moment as the young man on the phone tried to placate him with a little not-so-subtle brown nosing. A knock on the door brought his attention away from the operator's groveling. "Come in," he barked through the clenched teeth still chewing the cigar.

Rhonda breezed into the room and handed Simon a pink slip of message paper, which he snapped up before nodding his head in a simultaneous 'thank you' and dismissal. Before she could exit his office, though, he had a second thought and called out to her, holding one hand over the phone's mouthpiece. "Rhonda, can you do one more thing for me?"

"Sure thing, Simon." She nodded her head; her blond hair swaying slightly back and forth, as she waited for his instructions.

"Could you call the FAA…?"

"The Federal Aviation Authority?" She was taken aback by just how high he expected her to reach.

"Yes, the FAA. Explain to them that you're with the Cascade PD, and tell them you need to know the exact location of where that transport plane went down last night. Can you do that?"

"I can try, Simon, but…don't you need some kind of clearance for that information?"

"Don't worry, Rhonda. I'm not expecting you to work a miracle, just…do what you can."

"I'll give it my best shot, sir."

"Thanks, Rhonda. I knew I could count on you."

"Thank me after I get the information." She smirked lightly as she closed the door behind her.

His attention returned to the faceless voice on the line and he rattled off the badge number Ballast had given at the desk in the lobby. He slouched down into his chair as he waited for the operator to return to the line. Simon did not get the chance to get comfortable, however, as he rocketed out of the chair a moment later when the operator returned.

"What the hell does that mean?!" You have no record of a Clive Ballast in the Service? I am telling you that Ballast was in my office less than twenty-four hours ago flashing U.S. Marshal credentials." The operator managed to get a few words in, as Simon was forced to breathe. "You should be worried!" More talking came from the other end. "You sure as hell better look into it and I expect to be kept informed of anything you find out! Is that understood? Good." Simon slammed the phone back onto its cradle and collapsed back into his chair. Exhaling a laborious breath, he removed his glasses and wiped his bleary eyes.

It was long past the time he should've gone home. His watch read 11:27 p.m. and he had not been home since this time two days ago. He reached over the credenza behind his desk and retrieved the overworked coffeepot. Discovering it was empty, he shook the pot, hoping that his tired eyes were simply deceiving him. They were not.

Simon stood up slowly, and trudged over to the door, headed for the break room where he would be able to fill the pot with water. As he threw open the door, he nearly mowed down his Admin, who was just about to knock. With a jerk of his head he indicated that they should walk and talk.

"Simon, I called the FAA, but was unable to talk to anyone of authority. It seems they all went home for the day."

"Well," he sighed. "God forbid any federal outfit should be a twenty four hour operation. They probably work on banker's hours."

"But I did manage to get a hold of their hotline operator who informed me that there had been no reports of a plane going down in Utah in the last twenty-four hours."

"Imagine that," Simon ground out, his jaw clenching. "It's like they just fell off the face of the earth, Rhonda."

"What else can we do, Simon?"

"You can go home and get some rest."

"But Simon…."

"Look, Rhonda, you've gone above and beyond the call here. There's nothing else you can do here, but sit and stew. Go home. Please? At least one of us should get some sleep tonight."

"Yes, sir. If you say so."

"I do. Now, go."

"You'll keep me informed?" Her brow creased with worry, not wanting to give up the emotional control she had by being at the Precinct.

"I'll call you if I find out anything. Now, will you get out of here?" He shooed her away and watched as she turned and walked back to her desk to collect her things. Sure that Rhonda would heed his order, he continued with his original mission.

It was unusual for either Jim Ellison or his partner, Blair Sandburg, to work this long on a case without checking in. Especially when they were out of their jurisdiction. They should have called when they arrived safely in Utah. They should have called when they could estimate how long they would have to stay. That afternoon, after receiving no updates from his detectives, he had begun to worry in earnest. As he had told Jim and Blair that morning, this case had given him the heebie-jeebies from the start. His gut had told him that something was not right.

For a few hours he managed to stamp down his gut instincts, but they eventually got the best of him. Simon had attempted to get in touch with his detectives through a contact number Ballast had given him, but the number was continually busy. When the 'official' channels had not worked he began to call Jim's cell phone number. To his extreme discomfort, the phone rang and rang, but no one answered. Trying official channels once again, he proceeded to be sent on one wild goose chase after another. Now he knew, beyond any gut instinct, that Jim and Blair were in trouble.

Watching the water from the tap stream into the coffeepot, he muttered, "Damn it, Jim. Where they hell are you guys?"

"Captain, sir?" A soft Australian lilt broke through Simon's reverie.

"What is it, Conner?"

Megan Conner, Australian exchange officer, stood in front of him, her remorseful expression apologizing for interrupting his thoughts. "I just wanted to know if there was any news on Jim and Sandy, yet?"

"Nothing, and it doesn't look like I'm getting anywhere." Simon brought her up to date on the calls he had made, and the goose chases he had been on.

"Maybe we should…what is it you Americans say? Saddle up?"

"Are you suggesting we form a posse? That's the funniest thing I've heard all day." He chuckled lightly, amused by her tenacity, but not forgetting that he had two good men in trouble out there somewhere.

Megan stepped closer to Simon and lowered her voice. "Could this be a Sentinel thing, Captain? Perhaps this was orchestrated?" Her question hinted at something dark and mysterious.

"I had already come to that conclusion, Inspector."

"Well, we can't just leave them at the mercy of the government, sir. Jim and Sandy would never allow that to happen to one of us."

"You're right," Simon replied. "We have to do something." He rolled a nebulous idea around in his brain for a moment. "Conner," his voice went back into authoritative mode. "Mobilize the troops. I'll see what I can do about getting us a plane."

"Yes, sir." She snapped a crisp Australian-style salute, before turning on her heels and rushing out of the break room.

********************
Chapter Nineteen

The curled up forms of Maggie Shane and Cecilia Dillon slept huddled together on the hard, packed earth of the cave floor. Earlier, Blair and Jim had watched as Maggie led Cecilia through the creation of her other sensory dials. Her senses of smell, sight, and touch were now under control. Though it would take years of diligent practice before that control would become second nature, Cecilia now had hope that she could go on to live a normal life, free from the sensory torture she had experienced the last twenty-one years.

She had wept with the joy of it. For the first time in her memory, she felt comfortable in her own skin. She informed Jim and Blair that she felt more relaxed (despite their precarious situation) than she could ever remember.

Leaning against the rocky cave wall, Blair observed Jim, standing at the cave entrance, his back ramrod straight and his arms crossed against his chest. He looked like…well…he looked like a Sentinel. Searching the distance with his heightened senses for any sign of attack. Taking a last look at the peacefully sleeping women, Blair stood, and joined the silent watchman at his post.

"You should be sleeping, Sandburg. Get some rest while you can." Jim took his eyes off the horizon and searched his partner's face. Blair's face was dirty and there were telltale streaks of darkness beneath his eyes. He was paler than usual, making the dark circles overshadow the brilliant blue of Blair's eyes, which had now become dull with exhaustion.

"Hey, I'm not the one who carried a hundred and sixty pound woman two miles through the forest."

"She's more like 150."

"And that's supposed to make the difference? You're not fooling me, man. You really need to get some sleep."

"You look like hell, Chief."

"And you look like hammered sh--"

"Watch it, Sandburg." He warned, and then, "I can't afford to rest."

"We've been in worse spots, Jim -- a lot of them. This practically feels like a vacation."

"But it's not just us that we have to worry about." Jim glanced over at the sleeping women.

Blair's eyes followed Jim's gaze. "Should we send them an engraved invitation?"

"Engraved…what?"

"An invitation. You know," he joked. "Welcome to the Tribe."

"They made some real breakthroughs today, Chief, but they have a long way to go yet."

"We could learn a lot from them too, man."

"We're doing just fine." Jim reached out to gently squeeze the back of Blair's neck.

"We could do better."

"I promised I'd think about it, Sandburg. I was hoping for more than a few hours."

"Fair enough."

Silence descended for a moment, and Jim's eyes began to once again sweep the perimeter. "You know I had a vision before all of this happened."

"What?!" Blair screeched, and then remembered their sleeping companions. He steeped closer to Jim and lowered his voice. "When? Where? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Sorry, Sandburg. Simon's early morning phone call kind of put it out of my mind for a little while."

"And now you thinking about it again?"

"Yeah. Now it makes more sense."

"What happened in the vision?"

"I dreamed of her -- well, her spirit animal, anyway."

"What's her spirit animal?"

"It's a margay. Ever heard of them?"

"Yeah. I saw one in Argentina, once -- rare animals. They practically live in the trees, which is highly unusual for a cat.

"I -- the jaguar -- was on the ground, and she was in the trees. We didn't feel threatened by one another because we didn't encroach on one another's territory, I guess." Jim shrugged. "We just watched one another, but there was the sense that, at the time, we were supposed to be together. We moved through the forest; I was moving along the ground and she was in the trees leaping from branch to branch. It was amazing. She had speed and agility where I had strength and power."

Blair's eyes widened as he listened to Jim relate the story of the vision. "That's incredible, Jim. I was going on the assumption that you would be territorially threatened by any other Sentinel, like with Alex, but your experience with Cecilia blows that theory right out of the water."

"I think the vision was telling me that because she had her own territory, I had no reason to feel threatened by her."

"But, what if you're in her territory, or she's in yours?"

"In the vision we seemed to know that we would be disadvantaged in each other's territory."

"Disadvantaged…but not threatened?"

"No. At the end of the dream, she came down to the ground at my level. Her smaller size made her unthreatening to me, just as the jaguar's bulk and lack of dexterity would have made me useless in hers."

"That is so cool, man! I wonder how those disadvantages would manifest themselves in the real world? Perhaps a sense of submission on the part of the displaced Sentinel…." Blair's brain began to formulate a plethora of scientific theories.

"Chief? I know this latest development is exciting to you, but you have to stay focused. The science is gonna have to wait until we get of this mess. You got me?" Jim poked his partner in the center of his forehead, causing Blair's eyes to cross slightly.

"You're right. I know it. So…back into cop mode." He passed a hand over his face and the look of intense scientific curiosity changed to an expression that suspiciously resembled Jim's. "How far is it to civilization?"

Jim chuckled as Blair's 'cop-face' melted away. He could only hold it for so long. "According to Maggie's map, we're twenty-eight miles from the nearest town."

Blair loosed a low whistle. "That won't make for a fun hike, and Cecilia needs to get to a doctor before an infection sets in. I made sure to warn Maggie about making sure Cecilia doesn't dial her sense of touch down too low."

"You could just tell Cecilia."

"I can't do that, man!" Blair appeared shocked at the suggestion. "Maggie's her Guide. I can't risk the possibility that I might…imprint…on her in some way."

"What is she? A goose?"

"You know what I mean, Jim. Maggie needs to assert herself as Cecilia's Guide. I would only be a hindrance. Besides, it's just plain rude. And Sentinels don't exactly corner the market on being territorial."

"So, Sandburg. You're saying that if someone else tried to guide me, you'd rip their throat out?"

"Damn straight," Blair nodded once, and then smiled up at Jim.

"I might like to see that."

"Trust me, man. It wouldn't be pretty." Jim barked out a laugh and then, remembering their sleeping companions, lowered it to a dull roar. "Unless, of course, it was someone like Simon," Blair continued. "Then I'd just be grateful for the substitute." A moment later, the thought of Simon sank in. "Oh, man! Simon! He must be freaking out. We didn't call him to let him know how long we'd be here. Hey! Maybe Simon can send in reinforcements or at least get an airlift to pick us up."

"I already thought of that, Genius. I lost my cell phone back in the woods. I must have dropped it when we were running from the shooter."

"Great. So we really are stuck out here. 'Come visit Dixie National Forest -- the home of Peace and Tranquility!' The brochure really doesn't cover it, Jim."

"Don't worry, Chief. We'll get out of this."

"I know, Jim," he whispered. "Or we could just stay here. Move into the cave. Really get back to our roots."

"And miss the Jags wipe the floor with the Lakers? I think not, my friend."

"Right. It was silly to think we could live without basketball."

"Yup. Get some sleep, Sandburg." Jim's fond gaze became a glare of mock steel. "Don't make me tuck you in."

"I'm going, I'm going," he held up his hands in self-defense. "Don't let me sleep more than two hours, man."

Jim mumbled something unintelligible as Blair returned to his space in the cave, crossing his arms for warmth. He closed his eyes and quickly fell into a light sleep.

********************

He was so focused on the lurking dangers outside of the cave that he had not heard her approach until the sultry sound of her voice interrupted his current sweep.

"Don't you ever get tired?"

Jim pivoted at the sound of her voice. She came over to him, her leg betraying her injury with barely a limp. Her clothes were ruined -- that much was sure, but she did not seem overly worried about it. The luscious golden locks that had been so enticing at the riverbank were now reined in with a rubber band borrowed from her partner.

Noticing his scrutiny, Cecilia's hands slid into the pockets of her jeans and her head bowed as she studied the tips of her hiking boots. "I can take over if you want to get some sleep."

Jim's eyes slid over to her still-sleeping Guide. "It's not a problem.

"I can crank up my senses and keep a lookout."

"Maggie's asleep and she needs the rest. You shouldn't be dialing up your senses without her to monitor you."

"Blair's sleeping." She shrugged her shoulders.

"I know my limits better than you do, Cecilia. You only learned how to dial tonight. It's a technique that a takes a lot of practice and careful monitoring."

"You don't think I can do it." Her eyes shifted back to her toes.

"I think you can do anything," he whispered. "It just takes time and patience and practice. You can't learn to control your senses overnight. You wouldn't appreciate them that way, and you wouldn't appreciate your Guide."

"I already appreciate her." Cecilia's tone became defensive.

"Then you're lucky," he said. "I had to learn the hard way just how much Sandburg and his lessons meant to me. I hope you never have to go through that."

"Me, too." She looked up at the other Sentinel. Her feet shuffled and Jim deducted that she had something she wanted to get off her chest.

"Spit it out, Cecilia," he said, perhaps a bit too brusquely. Jim discovered that he was as frustrated by her insecurity as he was drawn to it.

She rolled her eyes and exhaled a breath, her cheeks puffing out from her tight lips. "Back at the riverbank…."

"Yes," he drawled.

"Before the shot…."

"When you kissed me," he provoked.

"When I kissed you?" Her hands went to her hips in a sudden show of defiance.

He smiled at her attitude. Jim liked this about Cecilia, with the fire flaring in her intense brown eyes. He chuckled, and it occurred to her that he was just having a little fun at her expense.

"When we kissed…."

"You're not going to tell me that it meant nothing, are you?" Jim's blue eyes radiated an unexpected gravity.

"No," she balked. "I wasn't going to say that."

"That's a relief. You can continue, now. I just wanted to get that out of the way." Jim waved his hand in her direction to indicate his permission.

"It's just that…with so little control over my senses for the last twenty-one years…." She did not seem to know exactly how she was going to say what she wanted to say.

"What are you trying to say, Cecilia. Just take a deep breath and let it rip," he advised.

"It was too much to handle -- that's why I pulled away." Her admission exited her mouth alongside a rush of air.

"I see. I was causing you pain." Jim had not been expecting that confession.

"You…overwhelmed me."

"I suppose I could take that as a compliment."

She laughed in a delightful release of nervous energy and the corners of his mouth went up as he admired her mirth. Her amusement trickled away and the ensuing silence brought a new resolve to her features.

"I've got my senses turned down now. Not too low, just enough to keep my leg from bothering me…."

"What are you hinting at?"

She clasped her hands together, perhaps to keep them from shaking. "Would you…? Would you kiss me again?"

"Well, generally, I prefer these moments to be unplanned, a sort heat-of-the-moment kind of thing," he joked as he tossed the words carelessly over his shoulder. A flirtatious attempt at playing hard to get.

Her eyes dropped, and the air around her, that seemed to be holding her up only a moment ago, evaporated all at once.

"I can't kiss you if you're way over there." Realizing the joke had been a miscalculation on his part, he opted for seduction. He beckoned her forward with a crook of his finger.

One look at the demand in his eyes and her feet were moving toward him of their own accord. She had no idea what it was about this man that drew her. Maybe it was his eyes -- those cerulean blue orbs that could go from warm glance to steely gaze in the space of a heartbeat. Or maybe it was because she could feel the 'protect and serve' radiating from his entire being. Maybe it was because he was just so damn sexy.

Before she could cross all the way to him, he met her halfway, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from the cave's entrance and out of the direct line of sight of its still-sleeping inhabitants.

The full moon had slipped too low in the sky to provide any decent illumination, so Jim was forced to dial up his sight to read her face in the darkness. Her pulled her closer, one hand sliding up to grasp her gently at the back of her neck. She shivered involuntarily and her respiration became ragged.

As if suddenly rethinking her actions, Cecilia took a step backward. Jim, not about to let her go, pulled her back towards him and swiftly took her mouth with his. Their lips, warm with anticipation, meshed together perfectly, and Cecilia found herself swept away by his intensity. Jim was such an intense person -- she should have known his kisses would not be any different. That was her last coherent thought as desire and instinct took control.

********************

"Was that what you wanted?"

"And more," she said, while trying to catch her galloping breath. Her eyes focused on her own hand, tenderly massaging circles into his pectoral.

"Did I hurt you this time?" His voice carried a tone of worry. One, she sensed, he usually only reserved for his Guide. His arm tightened protectively around her waist.

"No," she smiled. Probing fingers went to her swollen and heated lips. "For the first time in my life there was no pain. It was marvelous." In the early morning pre-dawn light, Jim could see her face flush with embarrassment, her pale skin becoming a delicious pink even beneath the barely perceptible smudges of dirt.

"It's nearly dawn. We should wake the others." Jim stepped away from her and headed for the cave. Unexpectedly, her hand reached out to snag him and she pulled him back to her. Her mouth took his this time, for one last kiss.

She did not know what made her do it. Whether or not it was a simple desire to hold on to their moment for just a little while longer. She wanted to know that her kiss meant as much to him as his kisses had meant to her. She wanted to believe, no matter how unlikely, that this was more than a simple attraction -- more than an instinctual desire brought on by a single gene strand buried within their DNA. Her heart skipped a beat and he smiled.

She could fall for this guy.

********************

"Sandburg, let's go. It's time to wake up." Jim squatted beside his best friend and gently shook him, hoping not to frighten him awake. At some time, while Jim had been outside with Cecilia, Blair's light doze had become a heavy sleep. Pinpricks of sweat stood out on Sandburg's brow, which was strange considering the chill that settled in the cave. "Rise and shine, Princess." Jim shook Blair again. The seeds of alarm sprouted in Jim's chest as his friend's slumber continued unbroken.

"Careful, Jim," Blair mumbled. His eyes opened, but they were unseeing -- his body still asleep, but his brain working overtime. "Cut off the head and more will grow. It never ends. There's more…there's always more."

"What's wrong?" Maggie awoke with a start and shot into a sitting position.

"I don't know," Jim replied. "He's not waking up."

Jim grasped both of Blair's shoulders, but Blair struggled even more. "He's not…oh, God…wait, Jim…not that way…." Blair's voice became steadily louder and clearer to discern. "Can't go alone. Why won't you listen to me? Damn it, why won't you listen to me? Jim, STOP!!" Blair came awake, his lungs gasping for air as his hand grabbed for his chest.

A moment passed before his eyes adjusted to the light in the cave. When he could see at last, three people with worried expressions hovered over him. "What?" Blair asked. "What happened?"

"You were dreaming, Blair," Jim said.

Jim was calling him 'Blair', which meant that he was worried, and that he must have been talking in his sleep. "What did I say?"

"You don't remember?" Jim touched Blair's face and he could feel his friend's heart racing inside of his body.

"No," Blair shook his head, his eyes widening. "What did I say, man?"

"Something about 'Cutting off heads' and that 'there's always more'." Maggie shivered as she quoted Blair's dreaming revelations.

Blair tried to organize the jumble of images flying through his brain, but they were too vague and indefinable to make any sense. Instead, all he could clearly recall was the feeling of terrifying helplessness stalking him at every turn.

"What is it, buddy?"

"We have to get out of here." His eyes were glazed over as he was still swathed in the emotions of the half-remembered dream.

"Where are we supposed to go, Blair?" Cecilia interrupted and Blair's head snapped up as though he just realized she stood there.

"What did the dream tell you, Chief?"

"It's slipping away, man. I can't remember what the dream was trying to tell me. Just that we were in danger."

"Which we already knew," supplied Maggie.

Jim stood and began gathering their meager things, throwing the first aid kit and flashlight back into Blair's backpack. "Sun's up," he said. "I'd rather move at night, but we can't sit around all day waiting to be picked off like birds on a wire." He threw a few extra MREs into the backpack and threaded his arms through the leather loops. "Let's go."

Maggie whipped the hiker's map out of the back pocket of her jeans and spread it on the dirt floor. "What's the plan, Jim?"

"We should head back to Central. Maybe we'll get lucky and find everything just the way we left it." Jim answered as he dialed up his sight and swept the nearby forest for intruders.

"Maybe whoever's behind this messed with our walkie's and the rest of the team is out looking for us," Cecilia suggested.

"I guess we know who the optimist in the group is." Blair groaned as scrambled up from the cave floor. His spine crackled as he stretched out the kinks from his hours of sleeping in a less than comfortable location.

"You okay, Sandburg?" The cracking of Blair's joints had sounded explosive to his ears.

"Sure, Jim. Nothing a hot bath and a full body massage given to me by a woman named Inga won't cure." He slapped the accumulated dirt from his jeans and the arms of his flannel shirt.

Jim stood over Maggie's map and deliberately chose a route different from the one they had taken to get to their current location.

"Are you sure that's wise, Jim?" Maggie asked. "We aren't familiar with this route. We could be walking right into a trap."

"You're right, Maggie, but look at this." Jim pointed at the topography of the map showing a sloping plateau. "This route might be more dangerous. It'll take us five hundred feet higher than our previous trail. It will be a harder climb and it'll take us nearly twice as long to get there."

"Still not seeing the upside, Jim."

"Look at the topography, Shane."

"Less forest," she shrugged her shoulders.

"Less cover," he translated.

"That works both ways, Jim."

"We'll work our way along the tree line, so that we only have to worry about ambush from one side." Jim turned to Cecilia, suddenly conscious of her leg injury. "Are you going to be able to make this hike?"

"I'll do whatever it takes, Jim," she answered. Jim smiled when he saw the fire of determination burning in her eyes again.

"I know you will," he whispered for her ears only. Her ear lobes flushed with pleasure at his quiet remark made only for her. "We could be walking right into a gauntlet, no matter which direction we take, so make sure your weapons are loaded and the safetys are off. You hear me, Sandburg?" Maggie and Cecilia removed their weapons from their holsters and each chambered a round in their matching Sig Sauers.

"I'm a pacifist, Jim, not deaf." Jim glared a warning at his sleepy-eyed partner. "However," Blair continued, "trained, as I am, to use a weapon and this being the perfect training situation, I yield to your better judgement." Blair yanked the Glock from its thigh holster and, using his thumb, flicked the safety button until it read 'fire ready'.

"Yield to my better judgement, Sandburg? Will miracles never cease?"

"Jim? Don't you know better than to mess with me right after I wake up?"

"Hey, Chief, what can I say? It's the only time you're not being a smart ass." Noting that every one was ready to go, Jim led the way through the cave's entrance. "Let's move out."

"Man, I just love it when you use that military jargon."

********************
Chapter Twenty

"I can't land in Provo, Smokey. Strip's too small. This Gulfstream's my new baby, Simon, and I won't risk her for anybody. Not even you, kid."

Nobody had called Simon Banks 'kid' for at least twenty years. Nobody, that is, except for Frank 'Chick' Ciccone. Chick had been a helicopter pool pilot for the Cascade PD back when Simon was a rookie and Simon had made fast friends with the man that was fifteen years his senior. Chick could fly choppers like nobody's business, but his first love had always been jet planes. Not a whole lot of call for jet planes in the police department.

About five years after Simon met the pilot; Chick had come into a rather large sum of money when a distant relative had passed away. He used the money to open up a charter plane business. Years later, that business was booming with ten employed pilots and a variety of planes for a variety of prices.

Simon and Chick had remained in touch all these years and when Simon needed a plane for an unauthorized Search and Rescue, his old friend Chick was the first person he called.

"We're all on board, Mr. Chick." The soft Australian accent of Inspector Megan Connor filled the jet's cockpit.

"It's just Chick, darlin'." He swiveled in his captain's chair and provided Megan with a twinkling wink. For a man who often flew high level executives across the country, Chick could not have looked more like a fish out of water. His gray hair had the flyaway look and his 'coke bottle' thick glasses were not exactly confidence inspiring.

"Can you get us Salt Lake City, Chick?" Simon interrupted the by play between the pilot and his Inspector.

"Salt Lake? You betcha, Smokey. I gotta friend in Salt Lake who can take you the rest of the way in a chopper. Just let me make a phone call and I'll set it up." Chick donned his headset and asked the tower to connect him to an outside line. He covered the mouthpiece with one hand and looked up at Simon. "Don't worry, Smokey. This guy owes me a favor, and it's about time he paid up, too."

"That's great, Chick, thanks." Simon withdrew a cigar from his leather case and violently bit off the end.

"Smokey?" Chick chuckled.

"Yeah, Chick?"

"This here's a non-smoking flight, kid. I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to refrain from lighting that thing up. Cigar smoke is so hard to get out of the upholstery."

Simon, looking suddenly sheepish, took the cigar from his mouth and placed it back in the leather case, which he then placed in the pocket of his windbreaker.

It was going to be a long flight.

Simon vacated the Gulfstream's cockpit, leaving Chick to schmooze a favor out his old friend, and headed back to main cabin. He stopped in the forward galley for a cup of coffee -- the expensive kind.

"Brand new boots from L.L. Bean, huh, Rafe?" Detective Henri Brown snickered and looked over his shoulder with a conspiratorial wink to Inspector Conner. "Whatcha want to bet you've got brand new blisters within an hour of getting to the forest."

"I'll take some of that action," Connor chuckled.

"What?" The much-maligned Rafe complained. "They're the only boots I have."

"That much is obvious," Megan retorted.

"Well, at least he made the effort." Henri rolled his eyes.

"Make fun of me all you want, Brown, but I'm not one going to Utah wearing a cheap, imitation Hawaiian shirt. We have a duty to present the best image for Cascade when out of our jurisdiction."

Henri looked down at his turquoise and yellow Maui-print shirt as though he were looking at it for the first time. "Hey, I just thought I'd increase our chances of Jim seeing us. You know how he is, 'shoot-first-ask-questions-later'. The last place I want to be is on the wrong side of Jim's hair trigger. Not with THAT aim."

"Are we finished with the Cascade PD Fashion Parade, gentleman?" Simon Banks' gruff voice interrupted the usual bickering between his remaining Major Crimes team. Megan's eyebrows rose at Simon's unintentional slight, which caused him to mumble, "and lady."

"What's up, sir?" Rafe stood from his seat.

"Chick says we should be ready to leave in a few minutes, so everybody needs to get buckled in. I'll brief you all on everything I know once we're in the air. Joel's covering the station today, just in case Ellison or Sandburg manages to get a message in. He'll give us a heads up if he hears anything. Chick says the Gulfstream is one of the fastest jets on the market and we should be able to get to Salt Lake within two hours. From there we'll take a helicopter to the Dixie National Forest."

"A helicopter, sir?" Brown looked slightly queasy.

"You can turn back anytime you want, Detective."

"No, sir." He answered quickly knowing that neither Jim nor Blair would turn back if he were the one lost in the woods.

"Okay," Simon smiled, proud of his team member. "Now, those of us who haven't slept in two days, namely me, are going to have a seat, buckle in and get a little shut-eye for at least half an hour. So, let's try to keep the fashion commentary down, shall we?"

Simon's suggestion was greeted with a delicious chorus of 'yes, sirs'. He smiled as he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.

********************

By ten a.m. they were forced to stop for rest by a small stream. Blair had the only portable water bottle among the quartet, so he took the opportunity to fill it, before taking a seat on a nearby rock. He watched as Jim reconnoitered a distance away, looking for anything that could be a threat.

Maggie bent to take some cool water in her cupped hands and lifted them to her mouth. She repeated the process several times to sate her thirst, before splashing her face with the rejuvenating liquid. Wiping her damp hands on her jeans she made her way over to Blair, where she joined him on the rock.

"How's Cecilia doing?"

"I never thought it could happen so fast," Maggie answered. "She seems to finally to fit within her own skin, you know? She wants to practice her dials every time we stop. She can't wait to get home so that we can work on it in safety. Neither can I, truth be told."

"Good," he sighed. "Hopefully, in the future, you'll be able to avoid more of those episodes of empathy."

"Is there something else you want to ask me about?"

"Always right to the point," he smiled.

"What else is there? Everything else is just a waste of time. So, spit it out, Sandburg."

"I wanted to ask more about the Garden and the other dreams you've been having."

"The jungle dreams?" Her green eyes squinted as she tried to ascertain what the jungle could possibly mean to Blair.

"Yeah, the jungle dreams. What animals did you see in the jungle?"

"It was the jungle," she shrugged.

"A coyote pup? Did you see that?" Blair knew he was venturing into personal territory, but he decided to take Maggie's lead by cutting straight to the point.

"Yes," she said, her voice filled with awe as her eyes widened. "How did you…?"

"The coyote is your animal spirit, Maggie. I began having visions of the pup just before I read the first of your letters. Did you dream of a wolf?"

"Yes. I remember being terrified of the wolf at first, and then I knew he wouldn't hurt me. In one of the dreams he even saved me from going over a cliff into the raging river below." Her voice dropped as her mind took her back to the vision, and the images became suddenly clearer to her.

Blair smiled.

"The wolf. It was you, wasn't it?"

He nodded, slowly. "The visions were trying to tell you something…tell us both something."

"The visions are part of the Sentinel thing?"

"Yes, but I don't have them often. In fact, the only other time I had a spirit vision was when I was dead. Jim has them more than I do, but whenever they come we know the spirits are trying to tell us something. And other animals, Maggie, did you see the others? The margay?"

"Yes, the margay. Always nearby in the trees. I could feel her watching me, as though she wanted to approach, but something was holding her back." Maggie laughed as she thought about it. "I didn't even know what a margay was. I had to look it up."

"The margay is Cecilia, and you're right, something was holding her back."

"What?"

"Her inability to be a true Sentinel. Your inability to be a true Guide," Blair hypothesized with a shrug. "If I'm right, you will no longer be separated in the spirit world, unless the spirits choose it."

"How did you know about the margay? Did you dream it, as well?"

"No," he replied. "Jim did. He said the vision was telling him that Cecilia wouldn't be a threat. Of course, I wish he'd told me about the vision before I actually met her. It might've made me feel a little better."

"Got the heebie-jeebies, didya?"

"In spades," he laughed. Maggie joined in his laughter for a moment. When their amusement wore down Blair took a breath. "Tell me about the Garden."

"What do you want to know?" Maggie and Cecilia had never truly shared this secret with anyone, but she knew Blair was seeking to expand his knowledge and would never use that knowledge to hurt her of Cecilia.

"What's it like when you're there? Describe it to me."

Maggie thought for second. She understood that Blair had held back on his questions, hoping to keep from being intrusive. Maggie wanted to answer his unasked questions as well as the ones he had posed out loud. "Well, Cecilia created it, and I just joined her there. It's always been like that. Cecilia is the author…the artist. She controls that world. Changes what she wants, when she wants. It's a beautiful, wondrous place filled will every flower you could possibly imagine -- and some you can't. I think, as a child, she wanted someplace where she could feel safe, and that place was inside her head. I believe that's why the Garden has walls…these massive stone structures that keep everyone else out."

"And keep you in," Blair nodded.

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Typical Sentinel. What about the convent, didn't she feel safe there?" Blair dug into his backpack and located a bag of trail mix, taken from the cave. He ripped open the foil package with his teeth, grimaced, and offered Maggie a taste.

She shrugged, reaching into the bag for handful of granola chips. "The Mac, though run by the Church, was like any other orphanage. I think Cecilia was afraid that she would be taken away from me, or I from her. Classic fear of abandonment. And who can blame her?"

"Jim and Cecilia really are two peas in a pod. Fear-based responses."

"Fear-based responses," she muttered, rolling the words over her tongue to taste them.

"Yeah. Jim's driven by a lot of fear. Fear of abandonment is one…always a classic. Fear of guilt is another. He can't let someone in his Tribe get hurt, because he's afraid of the guilt that will inevitably follow. He feels some measure of guilt even if he never met the victim just because they were his jurisdiction. And then there's the big one," Blair trailed off.

"What's that?"

"Fear of not being good enough."

"Nobody's good enough," Maggie said. "None of us are perfect."

"Tell that to Jim. I've been spending the last five years of my life trying to prove that him." Blair decided to get back to their original subject. "So, Cecilia, traumatized by life at very young age, created a world within her subconscious to help her heal. I suppose it could be worse," he said. "She could've just created an alternate personality." At Maggie's silent nod, Blair decided to continue. "When she goes into the Garden, is it hard to get her out?"

"It's not just a matter of coaxing her, Blair," Maggie confirmed. "It's a matter of making her remember. She's so cut off from the physical world that she forgets about it. That's why my presence there is so important."

"You're the connection." Blair's brain made a connection of its own. "You're the 'Link'. So, when you're in there, you remember?"

"I'm never completely in the Garden, Blair. That's why I can't control it. I remember the physical world, and time passes for me there just as it would here. My fear has always been that she'll go to Garden and she'll never come back. That her body here will wither and die leaving her soul trapped in that place. God! I'm sounding like a total freak."

"There are worse ways to die, believe me, I know."

"Yeah, but it's no way to live. Anyway, once she realized the inherent dangers of going to the Garden, she resolved never to do it again unless she was sure I would be there to pull her out. What about you and Jim? No Garden?"

"Nope," he answered. "Not that I'm not willing to give it a try, but Jim's a little too…well…controlling, to give himself up to something like that. Beside, you gotta remember that we've only been together for a few years. He lived another life before we ever met -- several of them, in fact. He had Incacha before me, and he was a much better…"

"Who's Incacha?" Maggie interrupted, stumbling over the pronunciation of the Chopec shaman's name.

"He was Jim's Guide…Shaman…before…in Peru. When his senses went online Incacha was there to guide him. When Jim came back to the States he had to leave Incacha behind."

"So what happened to him?"

"A few years ago Incacha came for a visit, sort of…long story," he explained. "Anyway, he was murdered."

"Oh, my God."

"Yeah, he bled to death right there on our couch. But before he died, he passed over the way of the Shaman to me."

"No pressure, right?"

"You know, it was strange," Blair's mouth turned up in a wistful smile. "As terrified as I was at that moment, it was like I had just been given a gift."

"How so?"

"Well, in all the time I had been with Jim I had never really felt like his Guide until after Incacha died. I mean…I didn't know what I was doing. I was just playing a role until Incacha gave me permission to make it real. I'm afraid I haven't been the best of Shamans though."

"What makes you think that?" Maggie's forehead crinkled in confusion.

"I'm supposed to a spiritual guide, and yet it's Jim that has all the visions. I teach him to use his senses, but to tell the truth, Maggie, I'm still making it up as I go along. I feel like I should have some mystical knowledge from the spirit world, but I don't. I'm a good Guide, because I always put Jim first, but I'm a lousy Shaman."

"Really?" Maggie's green eyes lit up mysteriously. "Because you seem like a pretty damn good Shaman to me."

"That's really nice of you to say."

"I mean it Blair. Look, you can read every book on the subject and meditate until the cows come home, but those things will never give you all the answers. You know why?"

"Why?"

"Because all the questions haven't been asked yet. Besides, I don't think the spirits give us the answers we seek. You don't truly appreciate something if it's given to you, right? I believe the spirits just give a healthy nudge in the right direction every now and then. So you see, Blair, they nudge, you study, and it all works out fine in the end."

"You're one smart lady, Maggie," he said.

"I know." Maggie's smile turned into laughter and Blair joined her in the following heartbeat.

"Let's go, Chief." Jim's voice disrupted the conversation, and although he had addressed his demand to Blair, it was understood that everyone was included.

Although Blair had seen it before, both in Mexico and in Peru, he was still amazed at the changes Jim went through when he went on full sensory alert. Totally focused on protecting the other, Jim's mannerisms had been scaled down to include only the most necessary. Every word, every action was calculated for efficiency. Not a breath was wasted and not an extra bit of energy was expended before its time. He was a coiled snake awaiting the opportunity to strike. Or a panther prepared to pounce.

Jim left Blair as his partner approached the stream to once again refill his water bottle. Cecilia had wandered from the group, choosing to remain farther down the path to monitor the direction from which they had come. Despite Jim's earlier warning, Cecilia had dialed up her hearing and was practicing her newly acquired filtering skills. One by one she had sifted through the sounds of the forest, searching for something that did not belong. So concentrated on the path was she, that she never heard Jim's approach.

Jim observed her for a moment, waiting for her to acknowledge his presence. When he realized that no such acknowledgement would be forthcoming, and the reasons for her unintentional disregard of him, he reached out to shake her from her absorption. Though she had not concentrated enough on a single sound to cause a zone-out, her tight focus on the filtering process had caused a near-zone state.

"Cecilia?" Jim lowered his voice to a deep and raspy timbre, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Cecilia started, but managed to hold in an instinctive shriek. Instead, a tiny squeak was all that was allowed to escape from her. "Sorry," she whispered.

"We're heading out." Jim turned and began to walk away even as he said the words.

Cecilia observed the cold blue steel in his eyes and the detached competency of his actions. She watched his back as he strode angrily and purposefully away from her. Cecilia was thrown by his sudden inaccessibility, and she felt a dismaying lurch as her heart dropped into her stomach. They had torn down so many barriers since their meeting and now, in a single moment, he seemed so willing to rebuild them. "Right behind you," she muttered under he breath as she followed him up the trail

He wanted to protect her, which, of course, was part and parcel with the Sentinel gig, but somehow it was more. Jim recalled the incongruous feelings of protectiveness he had felt towards Alex. He had been torn between protecting her and capturing her -- a dilemma that hadn't gone over so well with Blair. Jim wondered if these emotions were something that could have been more fully realized if Alex hadn't been a power-crazed lunatic.

In his mind, he compared Cecilia with the megalomaniac, and found that they could not be further apart. Cecilia had no delusions of grandeur, in fact, if anything she felt unworthy of affection, which explained why she had clung to Maggie all her life.

But it was all more than that. As though he had a duty perform in passing on the knowledge he had learned from the years of Sandburg's tests and his trials and errors. He was destined to mentor her, in the hope that someday someone would come along for her to mentor. A chain would be created, giving birth to a new generation of tribal protectors.

But of course, Cecilia had ignored his advice -- hard-learned advice, by the way -- to refrain from dialing without her Guide to monitor her. Jim knew for a fact that Maggie had been deep in conversation with Blair, only minimally aware of Cecilia's whereabouts at the time. Why was it that nobody ever listened to him? You know, every now and then, he actually knew what he was talking about! He accepted that Cecilia probably couldn't help it. She had, only last night, discovered a new level of control, and was anxious to observe the world at that level. Not to mention, it was part of her genetic drive to keep her ears open and her eyes peeled. Jim felt his frustration at her drain away. She couldn't help it any more than he could. But if anything happened to her or anyone else while she was recklessly dialing, so help him….

He reached out to take the heavy backpack from Blair, and slung it over one shoulder. Blair, suddenly empty- handed, watched as Jim headed up the trail, his senses already trained to the teeming forest around them.

The foursome cleared quickly and quietly away from the copse by the stream, and within moments it was as though no one had been there at all.

********************
Chapter Twenty-One

By noon, the Utah sun was beating down on them, and Blair could no longer recall the chilled feeling he had experienced in the cave the night before. Sweat pooled beneath his tac vest and he reached in one of the pockets to retrieve a blue bandana to swipe across the back of his neck

By Jim's best estimate, they were less than two miles from the Command Center outpost. He could hear Maggie and Cecilia quietly discussing the whereabouts of their team and the condition of the friends they had left behind when they entered the forest in what they thought was a hunt for a fugitive. Neither of them had wanted to think about the possibilities until now.

Glancing behind him at the members of the group, Jim could see the lines of dirt and exhaustion that peppered the faces of Blair, Maggie, and Cecilia. The seemingly secure moments of their experience had allowed for brief flashes of levity among the group, which had kept Maggie and Cecilia, unused to this type of stress, from breaking altogether.

Jim understood the feeling of being the hunted. His years in the army had taught him that, and eighteen months in Peru had solidified the feeling deep within his gut. Blair, as a police observer for three-and-a-half years, had seen his share of stress and psychotics, but Jim knew that it was Blair's complete faith in the Sentinel that kept him together. Blair knew that Jim would never let anything happen to him; and Jim knew that he knew it. As partners they had been through worse -- as friends they had been through worse, so Blair hadn't really been joking when he'd said he felt like they were on a vacation. Sad that their vacations were never much better than this.

Still, the hunter or hunters who had masterminded this scheme were being awfully quiet. In fact, the subtlety (if one can call a gunshot subtle) of the mastermind was what worried him most. Why did he not just come out into the open and get it over with?

Clearly their hunter was a coward, or maybe his strategy wasn't so badly planned as Jim had originally thought. Jim's senses had been highly active for over twenty-four hours now, and they had been on full alert for eighteen hours running. He was exhausted, and he his concentration was slipping. There would be moments where his mind just went blank -- deciding to take a self-imposed respite -- and then he would slam back into the present with the bone deep knowledge that this needed to end. Soon.

"How you doing, man?" Blair trudged up beside him, and Jim could see the concern in his azure eyes. Those eyes could never hide anything. They always told Jim the truth, whether Blair wanted them to or not, and they were telling him that his partner's anxiety was for him and him alone.

Jim owed Blair an equal measure of truth. "I'm tired, Chief." Blair handed Jim his bottle of water. Jim curled his fingers around the plastic container and took a healthy swig. The water had once been cool when it had been fresh from the river, but now it was lukewarm, sliding easily down his throat, but bringing very little rejuvenation. "My concentration is slipping, and a killer headache has started behind my eyes. I don't understand what this bastard is waiting for." Jim hissed his frustration, and Blair could feel the tension pervading the Sentinel's muscles.

"Uh, Jim? I've been thinking… you know, about our current situation."

"Have you reached any conclusions?"

"Yeah, and I don't think you're gonna like them."

"What else is new? Am I going to have to tickle it out of you?"

"I'll pass on the tickling, Jim, but thanks anyway. Okay, man, here goes. He or she, or whoever they are, are wearing us down, Jim. They'd probably like nothing more than to see us endure another sleepless night or two, before pouncing on us. You know, not to go all anthropological on you, man, but several ancient Middle Eastern clans used similar strategies on their enemies."

"And what strategies were those exactly, Chief?"

"Well, first they would initiate a skirmish to let their enemies know that they were out there. Once the point had been made, they would disappear as though they were giving up the fight. This would inevitably leave their enemies with a false sense of security, and perhaps a bit of overconfidence, since they believed themselves the victors."

"So what happened then?"

"Then the warriors would proceed to use subterfuge to subtly let their enemies know they were there. In fact, there's even a story in the Old Testament about it. In the story, King Saul believes that David is plotting to kill him, and declares war in him. He takes his army out to find the supposed traitor. While inside a cave, David sneaks up behind Saul and cuts a piece of material from the King's robe. Then, David holds up the material and declares that he could have killed the king if he wanted to."

"That's a nice story, Sandburg, real touching, but how does it help us here?"

"Well, David used a typical strategy but the ending of the story was particularly atypical. Once the tribe's enemy reached a breaking point they would step up the attack."

"How?"

"Divide and conquer, Jim. Whoever's out there is going to make sure they try to separate us. They'll drive us apart and pick us off one by one."

"Divide and conquer," Jim mulled. "A line of attack for someone who's working alone."

"Or wants us to think that," Blair countered. "Don't you get it, man? This is all one big mind job. We'll never really know what's going on until the endgame and that's exactly the way they want it."

"What about the cave, Sandburg? We found all of those weapons."

"False sense of security, Jim. It's remarkably easy to sleep when you're surrounded by a thousand different methods of defending yourself. We hid those weapons, my friend, thereby deluding ourselves into thinking that we had de-fanged a faceless enemy. We played right into their hands, Jim. We bought into the game."

"So, the question is…are we playing into their hands now?"

"I think that if we weren't playing into their hands they'd let us know."

"So how do we get out of this, Sandburg?"

"You're asking me? You're the Army Ranger, Jim, I'm just an Anthropologist."

"But you seem to know all about this, Genius."

"In THEORY, man. I know from reading books."

"Well, give me a suggestion then."

Blair's hands went to his hips as rolled an idea over in his head. "We play the game. Let them think we're clueless and that they have us right where they want us. We keep our eyes and ears open, but most importantly, we stick together. You need to get some rest, Jim. Let Cecilia take over, at least for a little while. She could use the practice, and you need to dial it down -- just for a few hours." Blair held up his hands to ward off Jim's defense.

"She's not ready."

"Hey, man, desperate times equals desperate measures. Besides, a Sentinel in training is still better than my eyes and ears. In case you hadn't noticed, Jim, Cecilia's confidence could use a little work. I think some responsibility might be just the thing."

"Fine," he agreed forcefully, "but here are the conditions. We stop and rest for a few hours. I don't want her dialing up while we're on the move. We're an hour's hike from our destination, so we can afford to stop for awhile, but I want you to keep a close eye on them."

Blair nodded as Jim ticked off each of his conditions. "I can handle that."

"And you'll stay on the alert?"

"Like a Motamban chief on his daughter's thirteenth birthday," Blair concurred.

"What?"

"Nevermind, Jim. Skip it. So should I go tell Cecilia and Maggie?"

"No, I'll tell her. I want to lay down some ground rules, Chief."

"Be gentle, Jim," Blair warned.

"That's me. 'Gentle Jim'."

"Man, I hope you don't really believe that." Blair watched as Jim turned around to backtrack where Cecilia was walking, as she pulled up the rear of their four-person line.

********************

They found a clearing that would provide good cover and a decent shade to keep them cool. Jim spent twenty minutes instructing Cecilia on how he wanted this operation run. It was not long before she threw up her hands in attempt to shut him up.

"I got it! I got it!" Cecilia swore. "Stay within earshot. Stay within sight of the camp. Don't dial up faster than is absolutely necessary. Never leave my Guide behind. Keep one eye on Blair, because if anything happens to him you'll strangle me with your bare hands. Don't allow anything to separate the group. If I start to have sensory spikes come and get you immediately -- do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Did I miss anything?"

"You forgot: 'don't get killed'."

"Oops. Are you always this…?"

"This what?" Jim's eyes squinted as he interrupted her.

"This much of a mother hen," she finished her original statement. "For cryin' out loud, Jim, the Sisters at the Mac didn't have that many rules for me."

"I just don't want anything to happen while I'm asleep. I need the rest."

"Fear based responses," she whispered.

"I guess," he agreed, not really wanting to delve into it further.

"My responses are just as fear-based as yours are, Detective. I'm just as afraid of…."

"Afraid of what?"

"Failure," she confessed. "The thought of anything happening while I'm on watch scares the hell out of me. It always has, I guess."

"You'll be fine," he decided. "Just try and actually listen to my advice this time."

"Are you still angry with me?"

"No," he answered. "You couldn't help it, I guess. I probably would have done the same thing in your position."

"Did you?"

He thought about it for a moment. "Everything happened so fast with me. I went from being perfectly average to having hyperactive senses in a matter of days. I probably would have shut it all off if I could have -- if Sandburg hadn't convinced me that beinng a Sentinel is who I am. I wasn't as interested in control as I was just getting it to stop. It's been a long road over the last few years."

"And I spent so many years with my senses that they became a part of me. I just wanted to control them. I think, if they disappeared tomorrow that I would feel as though I were deaf, dumb, blind, and wrapped in cotton. And that scares me more than all the other things put together."

"Yeah," he agreed, having never quite seen it that way before.

"Get some sleep, Jim. You look tired."

"That's the plan." Jim used his foot to wipe a cluster of pine needles away from the earth, making himself place to sleep. Years in the army had taught him how to sleep just about anywhere, hard ground being one of those places. He just needed a little rest -- it did not even have to be deep sleep -- just a chance to release the hold on his concentration and give the control over to someone else for awhile.

He hated giving over the control, but he knew that if Cecilia believed he did not trust her -- her confidence would be shattered. So he had made a show of not being worried, even if he had laid the rules on a bit thick. She could handle it. He really believed that. Jim stretched out on the ground and threw his arm behind his head for cushioning. He closed his eyes, shoved back his thoughts of worry and drifted into the blackness.

********************

"Jim," Blair insisted, "wake up, man."

Jim rocketed into a sitting position. "What happened? Is everything okay?"

"Cecilia thought she caught a glimpse of something deeper in the woods." Blair kept his voice low.

"How far away?" He looked up to see Cecilia and Maggie run into the clearing. "How far away?" He turned his question upon the other Sentinel.

"Half a mile," she answered. "Maybe more."

"What did it look like?"

"Like shrubbery with legs," she snorted, trying to hide her discomfort. "It wasn't very subtle."

"It wasn't meant to be," Blair spoke.

"They're keeping an eye on us. Checking our progress." Jim gained his feet, resisting the urge to dial up his sight and check things out for himself.

"Well, stick a fork me 'cause I'm done," Cecilia spoke up. "I want this game over and I want it over now."

"Agreed," said Jim.

"I think they know where we're headed and I think they're just waiting for us to get there. We're probably behind their schedule and they sent someone out for recon." As Blair spoke he rechecked the velcro closures on his tac vest, hoping the action would settle the uneasiness burgeoning in his stomach.

"Wait a minute," Maggie interrupted. "I thought we were dealing with one guy."

"We think there are more," responded Blair.

"And your logic is…?"

"One man shot at Cecilia and Jim by the river. Based on what we learned before the incident we suspect that Wyatt and Ballast are somehow involved. Those are just the ones we've seen."

"But we disposed of their arsenal," Cecilia piped in.

"Decoys," Blair sighed. "We think they're going to attempt to separate us."

"Let's double-time it back to the Command site and get this over with." Cecilia turned to Jim and straightened her spine, expecting his immediate censure.

"We need something resembling a plan," Blair bit his lower lip in contemplation.

"I think I may have one." Cecilia crossed her arms, but said nothing more.

"Care to share with the rest of the class?" Jim's tone was demanding as he leaned back against the tree, unconsciously stretching out his hearing to listen to the forest's sounds.

"They want us tired and separated, right?"

"Yeah," Blair's tone suggesting that she was merely restating the obvious.

"I say we give them what they want."

"What?" Jim's eyes widened and his jaw clenched.

"We split up. Obviously, they're not ready to separate us yet, so I say we do it ourselves."

"It's crazy," Jim answered.

"Why? Why is it crazy? We stay far enough away from each other to give them confidence, but close enough to keep in contact. If we dial our hearing up we should be able to give each other situation reports. We have to force them to act, Jim. If we don't, this could go on forever."

Jim thought it over for a moment. Since discovering they had only been playing into their enemy's hand, he had felt helpless and wracked his brain to come up with some scheme for turning the tables. Separating had not been an option, but the more he thought about it, the more he came to realize that it might be the only way. "It's dangerous," he answered, finally, "but it could work."

"There's one other thing." Cecilia took a deep breath and prepared to take an enormous leap of faith. "I want Maggie to go with you, and Blair to go with me."

"WHAT?" Three voices shouted in unison.

"Look ya'll," Cecilia drawled, "if those people out there know as much about us as we think they do, then they know all they have to do is threaten Maggie's life to get me to cooperate. It's the same with you and Blair, Jim. Don't even try to deny it. This way it decreases the chances of them using us against each other."

Jim hated her idea. He hated even more that he could see the logic in it.

"Our Guides will be safer if they're away from us, Jim. I trust that you will protect Maggie with your life. Trust that I will protect Blair with mine."

Jim's eyes met Blair's as he searched for a dissenting opinion. He knew that if Blair had a single ounce of doubt, he would nix the idea faster than Brown could woof down a donut. "I don't see anybody coming up with a better plan, Jim. Besides, she's right. We might be safer if we're away from each other. You know I would never say that in normal circumstances, but in this one…. They'll use me to get to you, Jim, and I can't have that. It doesn't matter how much research they do, man, they'll never understand that Maggie and I are necessary components of the Sentinel partnership. To them, we'll always be expendable. We're just chips to be played."

"Are you sure, Sandburg?"

"For you? No."

"What about for yourself?" Jim countered.

"I don't want to be a stumbling block for you in this situation. I trust Cecilia to watch my back."

"Okay…we'll do this," Jim relented, "but you have to make a promise first." Jim eyes flicked down to the Glock strapped to his partner's thigh. "Promise me that if you're life is danger for a single moment that you won't hesitate."

"Even if I don't shoot, you'll find a way to blame yourself, won't you?"

"You know me too well, Sandburg."

"Spending twenty-four hours a day with someone'll do that, my friend."

"You're stalling."

"I promise, Jim."

"Maggie?" Cecilia asked.

"What he said."

********************

The roar of the helicopter blades shook the air all around them, and Megan Conner had to fight to keep her auburn locks from becoming plastered to her face.

"He says he can get us directly to the Forest, but we'll have to refuel on the way." Simon had to yell over the sound of the blades, but even then his detectives had to watch the movement of his lips to understand his words.

He waved the others toward the chopper, and they were forced to bend at the waist to fight the gale force winds that threatened to knock them down. Megan climbed in first, assisted by Rafe and Brown. Her male counterparts followed as Simon ran around the front of the aircraft to climb in next to the pilot. They donned the headsets that would make conversation easier.

Henri tightened the straps that held him to the seat with one hand, while the other hand gripped a handle above his head. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and began to trickle down into his eyes. He swiped desperately at his eyes, with one hand, to clear his blurring vision. "Jim's really gonna owe me for this, Captain." He shouted into the mouthpiece of the headset.

"You weren't afraid of flying in the Gulfstream, Henri," Simon reminded.

"I had an aisle seat, sir."

"Just relax," Rafe advised, a grin spreading across his features. "Enjoy the ride."

Excitement gleamed in the eyes of Megan Conner. Never one to shrink from a challenge, she always enjoyed a good adrenaline rush.

The chopper made a jarring bump as it lifted from the ground. Henri's hands tightened even further as he watched the ground slip away beneath the helicopter. Rafe kept his eyes to the front, watching gleefully as the horizon became clearer as the craft gained altitude. Despite the door keeping the wind out of the chopper, Brown could feel the maelstrom outside of the vehicle rattling the plexiglass windows

"Is that normal?" He screeched.

"Is what normal?" The pilot replied by turning back to face the younger detective.

"That wind…that…could you please keep your eyes on the…air." Henri decided it might be a better strategy to lean back and close his eyes. 'Just two hours', he thought. Suddenly, two hours seemed an eternity away.

********************
Chapter Twenty-Two

Though they were no less than half a mile apart, Jim and Cecilia continued to apprise one another of their situation through a running commentary.

Blair watched as Cecilia tilted her head, just as he'd seen Jim do a thousand times. Unlike Jim, however, Cecilia rolled her eyes as she released a nearly inaudible growl of frustration. "How many times do I have to tell you? Blair's fine. Listen for yourself, if you don't believe me. I'll let you know if the situation changes -- which it won't. How am I supposed to concentrate on the bad guys if I've got you rattling on in my ear? Of course, I have a point. And, how are you supposed to watch my partner's back if you're constantly listening to us? Loosen the strings a little, Jim. No? Well, that's because your partner knows how to keep his mouth shut. What's so funny? Well, I'm glad I could make you laugh…I wish I was there to see it. Can we get back to the plan now?"

Blair snickered under his hand. He could hear Jim's side of the conversation in his head, just as well as if the man were standing right beside him. Surprising him the most was that Jim had seemingly conceded to Cecilia's point.

Cecilia shut Jim off, just as though she had disconnected a phone call. Her concentration went back to the trees around them, which had increased in density in the forty-five minutes since separating from the other pair. According to Cecilia's calculations they were less than fifteen minutes from the camp. Jim and Maggie had at least another half-hour since they had planned to circle around to the other side, and enter the camp from the opposite direction.

Jim and Maggie would enter the camp first, while Cecilia and Blair would watch from a distance in case backup was needed. It was a Sentinel tag team.

********************

Nearing the location of the Command Center camp, Jim stretched out his senses, unconsciously filtering out the smells and sounds that belonged in the forest. The place was empty, he knew that much. What had been a center of bustling activity only yesterday was now desolate and deserted. Only a myriad of odors left behind to betray a previous human presence, but it did little good, since he was unable to distinguish old smells from new. The cabins, built for summer campers, were empty as though they had never been full, and there was no longer the hum of electrical equipment.

Damn! Nothing stood out. His senses were giving him very little viable information, but the prickling on the back of his neck warned of danger. And something else too. The birds in the trees, chirping merrily only moments before, had become suddenly and deathly quiet.

"What's go-" Jim held out a hand to cut off Maggie's inquiry. She complied, her mouth snapping shut.

He dropped onto his haunches, pulling Maggie behind him with a single arm. Maggie's hand clamped down on his shoulder in an unconscious attempt to ground the Sentinel. Her heart raced inside her chest and her breathing quickened. Maggie drew her weapon as she prepared to wait for some signal from Jim.

"Cecilia," he whispered, hoping that she would tune him in. He removed his focus from the camp and searched for the other Sentinel and his partner. "It's too quiet."

********************

She clasped his arm and drew him into a crouch closer to the ground. "Jim says something's wrong." Only a moment before, Cecilia had noticed the eerie stillness of the surrounding trees.

Her pupils dilated as she focused, searching for inconsistencies in the forest trees. "Nothing," she rasped. "I can't see anything."

"Cecilia, your vision is going to be the least reliable of your senses, especially in this situation. Your eyes can play tricks on you, but your other senses are much harder to fool." Blair placed his hand on her forearm to ease the frustration causing a tension, which could lead to a potentially fatal mistake.

By now, Cecilia and Blair were a mere one hundred yards from Jim and Maggie. Just as Jim had planned, they had circled around the camp, and were now directly in front of them. "Has Jim found anything?"

"He says he's not getting anything either, but that his instincts are telling him to beware."

Cecilia stood from her crouched position, hoping to get a view of Jim and Maggie on the other side of the clearing. Blair stood as well, placing his hand on her forearm once again. "When I was a kid we used to have this game we played at the Mac. The Sisters didn't know about it. We called it 'Murder in the Dark' but it's just 'hide and seek' with all the lights turned out. I used to get this feeling in the pit of my stomach every time the person who was 'it' got too close to finding me."

"Yeah, so?"

"I'm getting that same feeling right now." The sound of a snapping branch to her left brought her focus around. Behind her, a metallic click sounded like a thunder in her ears. "GET DOWN!" Cecilia slammed into Blair, taking him violently to the ground, just as a shot tore through the silence of the forest. Bark ripped from a tree directly behind where Blair's head had just been.

Cecilia's ears rang with the echo of the gunshot, but her hearing still picked up the sound of someone swinging from a branch and the hard thud of booted feet hitting the ground. She heard a deep voice whisper, "Take the woman alive."

Blair's arm pushed Cecilia's body off of him and he scrambled to his feet, taking cover behind a tree. In front him he could see sap bleeding from the wounded tree that had taken the bullet meant for him. From the damage, Blair realized that the bullet, clearly aimed for him, would have disintegrated his skull. He reached down to grasp Cecilia's arm, pulling her to her feet.

"They want me alive," she gasped as she drew her weapon from its holster.

"They want me dead." Blair gestured at the bleeding tree to prove his point. He remained transfixed by the sight of oozing sap, until a gunshot sounded from across the clearing.

********************

Maggie saw the camouflage lurking through the trees, and the glint of sun off the sleek metal gun barrel. Only seconds before, the sound of a gunshot had turned Jim's attention as he listened desperately for signs of Sandburg's safety.

She only had time to utter the word 'gun' before slamming into him. Her much smaller body did little to move his larger one, as she threw herself into his chest. Jim heard a soft whooshing sound just before Maggie's slight form went slack in his arms. His gun and his aim followed to the sound to find a form in the trees. He focused in to see the person in the camouflage and squeezed the trigger. The shooter's eyes went wide as he took a bullet in the chest and plummeted from his lofty perch -- dead before he hit the ground.

Jim carefully lowered Maggie's limp body to the dirt, his senses searching for the injury. On the back of her neck he located a trickle of blood and the cause of it. The shooter's weapon had been a tranquilizer dart, meant for him. Maggie, in her attempt to push him aside, had gotten in the way of the shooter's aim.

He plucked the tiny dart from her neck and sniffed the offending object. Standard tranquilizers, he discovered. Nothing lethal, as far as his senses were telling him, just enough to put a healthy adult out of commission for a few hours.

Remembering the gunshot from the other side of the clearing, Jim searched for the sounds of Blair and Cecilia. His ears were assailed with the sounds of several different heartbeats, all running at different paces. First he filtered out Maggie, the slowest rate, which had dropped to resting heart rate level. The sound of Blair's strained voice caused Jim's heart rate to drop to a more normal level, and he was able to locate Cecilia with no problem. Once identified, Jim filtered those sounds away and he discovered what he had been looking for all along but had been unable to find. Three more heartbeats -- one beating within normal range and the other two spiked to the level of an extreme adrenaline rush.

He plucked her fallen weapon from the ground and stuffed it in the waistband of his jeans. In one swift move, Jim lifted Maggie from the ground and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Sweeping the area one last time for hidden enemies and finding none, Jim moved off in the direction of the racing heartbeats, his feet carrying him as fast he could go.

********************

"Maggie," Cecilia gasped at the sound of the gunshot.

"That was Jim's gun," Blair's whispered. "And don't think it doesn't frighten me a little that I actually know that. Don't worry," he consoled. "Jim won't let anything happen to her."

"There's two of them." Cecilia's body stiffened next to Blair's. "They're closing in on us."

"Can they see us?"

Cecilia shook her head. "Don't think so. The shooter was in a position above us about fifty yards away and he was using a scope. He's on the ground now. Moving in on us from the south."

"And the other?"

"Coming from the west." Cecilia listened quietly for a moment. "About thirty yards. He's saying something. They're communicating through headsets."

"What are they saying?"

"The shooter is telling the other guy that 'Deacon is dead'. He's giving him orders to 'go after the other two'. He's moving away."

"Can we circle around and come on the shooter from behind?"

"It's worth a shot." Cecilia pulled away from her hiding place against the tree.

Blair grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "First we gotta warn Jim he's got someone headed in his direction."

"Right." Cecilia tuned her senses and located the other Sentinel with unusual ease. Her ears were assaulted with the sound of snapping twigs. "He's moving toward us, and he's not being very subtle about it."

"Jim," Blair whispered, "you've got a bogey headed in your direction. Cecilia says you sound like a herd of elephants. A little subtlety would be good here, man." He waited for Cecilia to listen for Jim's acknowledgement. "He's slowed down," she said, indicating that Jim had indeed been listening. Cecilia listened for another moment.

"What is it, Cecilia?" Blair noticed the strange looked that passed across her features.

"I can't hear Maggie. She's not with Jim."

"Of course she is. Jim never leaves a man behind, he doesn't know how. Listen harder," he encouraged. "Listen for her heart."

"There it is," she breathed a sigh of relief. "It's too slow though."

"Is it regular?"

"Yeah, it's steady but slow like she's sleeping."

"Cecilia, listen to me," Blair demanded. "Maggie is fine. Her pulse is strong and steady and Jim's with her. Trust me. He won't let anything happen to her."

"I know."

"We have got to concentrate on the task at hand. Put the worry out of your head, and let's get this done."

"Right," she nodded. "This way."

********************

Jim slowed his pace as he acknowledged Blair's whispered admonition. Someone had been sent in his direction. His feet stopped moving as his brain began to form a plan. He scanned the area around him, and located a large coppice of dense shrubbery. In order to turn this little stalking game around on his hunter, ensuring Maggie's safety was priority.

Jim lowered Maggie to the ground within the thicket and used loose leaves to further camouflage her. Once she was believably hidden, Jim set about implementing the rest of his plan.

********************

'Not one of my saner moments,' he thought. The swishing sound of his denim jeans sounded loud, even to his ears, and he made a conscious effort to be stealthier. Stealth had never been his strong suit. Jim had always been the sneaky one who could creep up on people and knock them over the head before they even knew they were in trouble.

"He's coming this way," Cecilia whispered. "I think we've been made. We need to split up and see if we can flank him." She gestured with one hand, letting Blair know that she was going in one direction and that he should go in the other.

Blair balked. More splitting up? This wasn't such a good idea.

"No time," she said. "Go."

Blair circled around as quietly as he could until he caught sight of their assailant. The figure, clearly a man, was dressed head to toe in forest camouflage. Taking him in with a single glance, Blair realized that the man wore a tac vest just as he did, which made the use of his weapon a lesson in futility. Blair drew his pistol anyway and sighted down the barrel. Taking aim, Blair took one step closer, and then another. He really wanted to take this guy alive anyway. They needed to know who was behind this debacle, and if they killed off all the enemies, Blair knew they would never find the truth. Soldiers like this never left a trace.

One foot in front of the other, Blair took gentle steps. The last thing he needed right now was for the assassin to be alerted by the sound of a dry twig cracking beneath his feet. With the man in his sight, Blair watched as the killer lifted the rifle in his hands and placed the gun butt against his shoulder to take aim at something off to his left.

'Damn it, Cecilia!' Blair cursed silently. He understood with sudden clarity that Cecilia was intentionally drawing the man's fire.

********************

Jim observed as his quarry searched the area all around him, his rifle sweeping back and forth in his hands. The man dropped to the ground to examine a set of footprints in the soft dirt.

'Over here,' he silently urged. 'That's right. Just a little closer.'

The man moved in his direction as though he had heard Jim's mental encouragement. Jim glanced over to the bushes where Maggie lay, concealed from the intruder's sight. She slept still, blissfully unaware of the danger lurking only a few feet away.

The man circled around, checking the ground for further evidence. The mask on his face cut through his peripheral vision, but he caught sight of something buried halfway under a pile of leaves. His combat boots crunched softly on the dried leaves blanketing the forest floor as he approached the flash of navy blue.

The man shifted his rifle on the shoulder strap to face the ground as he leaned down to pick up the object at his feet. He brushed the leaves away to discover a blue baseball cap with the words 'Cascade PD' emblazoned in white thread on the front.

'Now!' Jim's voice exploded in the cavern of his skull as he dropped from the branch. At the last second, sensing the presence of another, the man scrambled desperately for his weapon as his eyes shot up to see a blur with a slightly human shape falling directly at him.

Jim landed on the assassin and the full force of gravity took them both to the ground. Jim prepared himself to fight off the man pinned beneath him, but was surprised to find the soldier gasping and clawing at his neck. Jim got to his feet, wincing as he left knee protested. The force of his landing had jarred the joint, and he could already feel it swelling. He looked down at the gasping man whose eyes were bulging and tearing beneath his camouflage mask. Jim reached down to remove the mask that obscured the dying man's face, and was not surprised to find the pleading eyes of Clark Wyatt staring up at him.

In his scramble to gain purchase on his weapon, the shoulder strap had become twisted around his neck. The force of Jim's weight and the fall to the ground had done the rest -- tightening the strap enough to crush the young man's larynx. He was choking to death and there was nothing to be done for him. Not out in the middle of nowhere. Jim had hoped to get some information out of the assassin, but he was beyond all interrogation now. His pulse had become weak and Jim took note of the moment the light left his eyes, leaving behind a dead stare.

"Sorry, kid." Jim leaned down and relieved the young soldier of his weapon, carefully liberating the strap from the man's neck. Checking the dead man's pockets, Jim discovered a GPS locator. Flipping the power switch he discovered a blinking red light betraying his own position in the forest. The assassins had known where they had been all along. But how? Obviously, Jim had a transmitter on his person, but where was it?

He removed from his vest the two road flares he had taken from the cave. That didn't make sense, he reasoned, since they had to know their location prior to them finding the cave. Their location had to have been pinpointed before the shooting at the river.

He looked down at the blue face of Clark Wyatt. 'Deputy' Clark Wyatt, he had said. Jim's mind flashed back on a memory.

Wyatt, handing him a walkie-talkie. "Keep it set to channel four, and let us know if you find anything out there."

Jim retrieved the device that had been all but useless from his vest and examined it with his hands. Dialing up his sense of touch, he could feel a high frequency pulse coming from beneath the hard plastic cover. Wrapping his fingers around the antennae, he swung the device, smashing it against the tree. The plastic splintered with relative ease as the communicator's electronic guts spilled forth. Inspecting the contents he found exactly what he suspected -- a transmitter for a Global Positioning System.

********************

In the careless manner that his compatriots at the Cascade PD had become accustomed to, Blair launched himself at the shooter before he could fire on Cecilia. Slamming into the man's back, the rifle he aimed slipped from his grasp, making a heavy thud as it hit the ground.

Blair had hoped to take the soldier down, but the man was merely knocked off balance. Sandburg aimed his pistol at the man's chest. With the vest on the bullet probably would not kill the attacker but, having been shot while wearing a vest, Blair knew that it would neutralize the immediate threat.

He hesitated a moment too long though, because the soldier's foot came from nowhere to clip Blair in the chest, knocking him backward into the unyielding trunk of a very large pine tree. The sudden stop of a body in motion caused Blair's weapon to fly from his hand, landing somewhere not out of sight, but definitely out of reach. His knees gave way and he slid down the trunk. Without his weapon, he had little or no hope of defeating the soldier, who had six inches and thirty pounds on him and all of it solid muscle. Running into the man had been like driving headlong into a brick wall.

He didn't know how he knew, but he could sense that the soldier was smiling beneath his ski mask. Blair looked up and a slow smile crept across his features because he knew something the killer did not.

"Put your hands where I can see them." Cecilia had crept up unheard behind the assailant, whose body went stock still at the sound of her voice. Unlike Blair, Cecilia pointed her weapon at the back of the man's head, with every intention of blowing it apart if he so much as sneezed. "You okay, Blair?"

"Fine." Blair had not betrayed her presence earlier, but this time he lifted his eyes and nodded. Placing his palms flat on the ground, he began to lift himself up from his seated position.

Later, Blair would say that for a moment time slowed to a crawl, allowing him to witness every excruciating detail of a single second. He had no clue from where the weapon had come or how the killer had retrieved it so quickly.

Neither Blair nor Cecilia ever saw the man turn, but both could only watch in horror as the tiny pistol pointed directly at her when the soldier pulled the trigger.

"NOOOOOOO!" Blair's scream reverberated across the forest as once-silent birds took flight in a rush, their cries echoing his own.

Cecilia's hands went to her throat and she could only stare in horror at the blood on her fingers. 'It doesn't hurt,' she thought. Her mouth worked in silence, but her vocal chords seized on her. Her legs went frighteningly numb then, and she could feel the ground rushing up to meet her.

Anticipating Blair's attack, the faceless soldier threw a backhanded punch into his face, knocking him backwards. As he was falling, Blair instinctively reached out for something to steady himself with and found the collar of his attacker's tac vest. As a final insult, a large tree root popped up from nowhere to trip Blair's feet as he tried to regain balance. Still grasping the killer's clothing, Blair fell, and he took the soldier with him.

Already out of breath from his exertion, the heavy weight of the falling soldier landing on top of him did nothing to improve his situation. Blair attempted to throw a punch into the camouflaged man's kidneys, but pinned beneath the man, he was not in a position to get off a decent shot.

The killer quickly regained his equilibrium to discover he had his quarry exactly where he wanted him. The advantage was his and he was going to milk it for all it was worth. Sandburg struggled and squirmed beneath the killer's weight, but was unable to flip the man over.

The killer, who had previously been silent, actually had the nerve to laugh. He jammed his forearm in to Blair's neck, cutting off his air supply and placing dangerous pressure on his larynx. "You know, Sandburg," the killer said as though he knew him, "you're nothing without Ellison. You're a joke. You're not even a challenge."

The killer's piercing eyes were green and devoid of any gentle emotion. Blair was dying. His lungs were burning with the need to take in air and his vision grayed around the edges, as the flow of oxygen to his brain remained blocked. He was struck with the sudden need to see the face of his killer. Grasping blindly, he yanked the ski mask as hard as he could, pulling it away from the killer's face to reveal olive skin and a blond crewcut.

Exposed to his victim, the killer only laughed and said, "You think it matters that you've seen my face? Dead men don't tell tales, Sandburg. I sent one of my best men after your partner. Ellison's probably drugged to the gills and chained in a cage by now."

Blair wanted to retort, but since his lungs had recently become a vacuum he was unable to. His eyes began to tear up as he desperately grasped for something -- anything -- to help him out of this situation. His hands clawed the ground, grabbing dirt and dried leaves and twigs and a road flare that had fallen from his vest when he'd been thrown against the tree. A road flare? Ask and you shall receive.

He had only seconds before the last of his oxygen gave out and his depleted brain would begin to shut down. Blair reached over his head, road flare in hand, and struck the flare against the tree's rough bark like a giant match. His beleaguered mind heard the whoosh as the flare burned to life with a white-orange glow.

No time left for debating the issue, Blair jammed the burning flare into the neck of the man who was joyfully killing him. The magnesium flame elicited an immediate response from his captor, who released his hold on Blair's neck in order to grab on to his own. The white heat of the flare seared through the killer's skin and muscle and blood began to spurt from his injured neck as he rolled off Blair and writhed in agony on the ground.

For a few moments, Blair sucked in air like…well, like a dying man. The blood drained from his face, returning his skin tone a more normal hue. He rolled over onto his side, coughing even as his sorely abused lungs struggled to work. Blair strained to get to his feet, his muscles weak from oxygen deprivation. His hands shook as he lifted himself first to his knees and then slowly to his feet, where his joints nearly collapsed on him. He grabbed for the tree to keep from falling.

The injured soldier writhed on the ground but the unmoving figure drew Blair's attention instead. "Cecilia?" His voice rasped as a column of fire raced down his throat. Blair swallowed and tried again. "Cecilia?" Pushing off the tree, he stumbled over to Cecilia's eerily motionless form. He could see that her eyes were open and breathed a sigh of relief when they rolled up to look at him.

He slipped to his knees beside her and lifted her wrist to check her pulse. Slow, strong and steady.

"You okay?" Cecilia asked. The red rims of Cecilia's wide eyes informed Blair that she had been crying.

"I'll live," he answered as simply as possible. It occurred to him that from her position on the ground she had been witness to Blair's life or death struggle with Crewcut. She had seen it all and been helpless to stop it -- agony for a Sentinel. She had promised Jim that she would protect Blair with her life and for those few eternal minutes it seemed as though she had dismally failed. "What about you?" His throat burned with each syllable he spoke.

"Not so good. Sleepy."

"Stay with me, Cecilia. I'm gonna--," he paused for a torturous breath, "roll you over to get a look at the wound. Okay?"

Cecilia made only a slight nod, and Blair gathered his strength to flip her onto her back. "What the hell?" He found only a slowly halting trickle of blood from a prick on her neck, instead of the gushing bullet wound he expected. A flash of yellow amongst the leaves caught his eye and brushing the leaves aside, he found the cause of the hole in her neck.

"Dart," she said. "Been tranquilized. Shouldn't I be out by now?"

"Senses--," Blair rasped, hoping to break the explanation down to as few painful syllables as possible. "Unusual reaction to drugs."

Her eyes widened in understanding. "The ane…ane…."

"Anesthesia," he provided, as he recalled the story Maggie had told him only yesterday evening. "Probably -- not affecting you the way they thought. Can you move?"

"Can you help?"

Blair nodded. He leaned down and helped her wrap her arms around his neck. As he lifted, so did she, until at last she was sitting upright again. Cecilia glanced at the silent soldier on the ground just a few yards away.

"Dead?" Cecilia asked.

Blair stood and limped over to his defeated opponent. Bending at the waist and placing his hands on his knees, he examined the man. The soldier had managed to remove the road flare from his neck, before passing out from the pain. His neck was a bloody mess, but it no longer bled freely. The side of his face was black with soot. "He's alive," Blair answered. "The heat of the flare cauterized the wound. He'll live if he can get some medical attention. Of course, he'll probably never talk again. His mouth really was too smart for his own good."

"That's harsh, Blair."

"Forgive me if I'm still shaken by my near-death experience," Blair replied with no small amount of sarcasm.

"Your neck is bruising."

"I'm surprised it's not worse. Are you gonna be okay?"

"Yeah," she answered. "My head's starting to clear. Help me up?"

Blair stepped forward and reached down to her outstretched arm. Once standing, she leaned her weight against him in an attempt to maintain equilibrium.

"Jim?" Blair asked, turning his face toward the Sentinel.

Cecilia shook her head. "No good," she answered. "Everything's gone wacky. Must be the sedatives."

"So, basically we're stuck in a scary forest and we're deaf, dumb, and blind?"

"Basically," she confirmed. "Sorry."

"Some days you just shouldn't get out of bed."

********************

Jim crashed through the forest with a still-unconscious Maggie slung over his shoulder. The first thing he saw was his partner bearing the weight of an obviously sedated Sentinel. The bruises on Blair's neck stood out on his skin, pale from exertion and injury.

It was then that Jim's nose was assaulted with the scent of magnesium and phosphorous and his eyes piggybacked the odor to see the unconscious soldier curled into a fetal position on the leaves blanketing the earth.

"Is this your handiwork, Chief?"

"What can I say? He pissed me off."

"Remind me never to get on your bad side."

"What have I been saying for the last five years?"

"Maggie?" Cecilia interrupted the repartee between Sentinel and Guide. "What happened?"

"Same thing I suspect happened to you," Jim answered. "Tranquilizer?" His pupils constricted as he located the pin prick on Cecilia's neck. "She's fine," he soothed. "She'll just be out for awhile. Probably wake up with a headache, too." Jim bent down until Maggie's limp feet brushed the ground, and then lowered his burden until he was able to lay her on the forest floor. Gently checking her pulse one more time, Jim left her and made a beeline for his partner.

"I'm fine, Jim." Blair spoke before Jim's quick strides could eat up the ground between them.

"The hell you are," he said, angrily. "I heard the whole thing, Chief. You sounded like you were suffocating." Jim's powerful hand grasped his partner's chin and turned his head, affording a better examination of the quickly bruising skin on Blair's neck.

"I was," Blair confirmed, grimacing as Jim's thumb brushed his swollen neck.

"I'm sorry I couldn't reach you in time, Blair."

"I took care of him, Jim." Blair searched out Jim's eyes, careful to avoid looking at the murderous soldier brought low by his own hand.

"It was him or you, Chief. You know that, right?"

"I know it, and I'm not sorry I did what I did."

"Good," Jim said. "You're going to have to see a doctor about this, Rambo. There's been some damage to the larynx. Try not to talk unless it's absolutely necessary."

"C'mon, Jim!" Blair launched into his standard protest.

"Arguments constitute unnecessary speech." Jim cut him off, waving his hand to let Blair know that protests would be ignored. He stepped over to Cecilia who was now leaning against the same tree Maggie blissfully slumbered beneath. "Let's have a look," he said.

"Tranquilizer dart," she said, holding up the offending object. She turned her head so that Jim could get a look at the tiny wound. "It's nothing."

"Any dizziness? Double vision? Numbness?"

"All of the above, Doctor."

"Those are probably just par for the course. What about chest pains or joint pain?"

"No," she answered. "Just feeling a little drugged. And my senses are useless," she added as an afterthought.

"That probably won't last long," he assured, recalling the time Colonel Oliver had drugged him. "The lethargy, on the other hand will probably linger for a few days."

"Hey, Jim. What about…?" Blair began.

"No talking!"

Blair's mouth clamped shut and his eyes sought help from Cecilia.

"I think Blair wants to know what happened to the guy they sent after you." Blair gave Cecilia a thumbs up and a smile.

"Oh. You mean Deputy Clark Wyatt?"

"What?!" Blair and Cecilia demanded in unison.

"He won't be bothering us anymore."

"You killed him?" Blair asked.

"It was more like a freak accident. He crushed his larynx with his own gun strap."

Blair mumbled something beneath his breath about 'selling bridges'.

"Whispering counts as talking, Chief, and I'm telling the truth. That's not all, troops. They've had us pegged all along. I found a tracker in the walkie-talkie Wyatt gave us."

"Did you destroy it?" Cecilia asked.

"No. That would have just let whoever's behind this know I found it."

"Where is it, Jim?" Blair rasped.

"I tied it to squirrel," he answered with a smile. "That should keep him off our backs for awhile."

"You didn't," Cecilia challenged, with a chuckle.

"I did."

"You said 'him'," Blair observed. "You said, 'that should keep HIM off our backs. How do you know?"

Jim reached into his tac vest and retrieved the GPS locator he had taken from Wyatt. "They're all carrying," he said. "And this locator accounts for all but one." Jim touched a button to flip through the channel settings on the locator, until he found the blinking light that was the downed soldier. Flipping to another channel he found the motionless blinking light of Clark Wyatt who was dead but still possessing his tracker. Touching the button once more, he held the locator up for all to see. "Will our mystery guest please stand up?"

"That's him?" Cecilia inquired, unsure.

"Best I can figure."

"Well, let's go get him," Cecilia demanded. Like a drunk person trying desperately to look sober, Cecilia raised herself to her full height, stiffening her liquid joints to remain standing.

"Not a chance," Jim said. Cecilia opened her mouth to object, but Jim cut her off. "Look at you," he said. "You can barely stand up straight. The tranquilizers have knocked your senses offline and your leg wound isn't really helping matters. Blair, your throat is going to swell even more if we don't get you to a hospital. Maggie's out for the count. I need you both to stay with her while I go after this guy. It's time we put an end to this once and for all."

Cecilia slumped with the knowledge that Jim was right. She was no good to him in this condition.

"Jim," Blair said. "I'm fine. I'm going with you. I'm your backup."

Jim nodded at the words Blair had spoken so many times in the past. "Stay with them, Blair. You've already been injured, and I'm not going to risk you getting killed. And…stop talking."

"Damn it, Jim…."

"Decision's made, Chief." Jim's jaw clenched, signaling to Blair that there would be no more arguments. Jim unholstered his weapon and ejected the clip, checking his ammunition. Reaching into his tac vest, he retrieved a fresh cartridge and loaded it into the gun. With a sharp tug on the slide he chambered the first round and with a flick of his thumb, released the safety. "Stay out of sight," he warned the others as he stepped out of their circle and into the forest.

Blair watched as his partner walked towards danger without him. His stomach clenched in fear. "I don't feel good about this," he said to Cecilia.

"Neither do I," she whispered.

********************
Chapter Twenty-Three

Jim crept stealthily through the trees until he reached the outskirts of the clearing that had once been the Central Command for the 'fugitive' search. He marveled, for a moment, at just how elaborate this entire scheme had been. Most amazing was that they had been fooled -- HE had been fooled. He was a very difficult man to fool, and what's more, he didn't like the feeling.

The clearing had been emptied, probably as soon as Jim, Blair, Cecilia and Maggie had made their way into the woods in search of Granados. There were no overt signs that the campground had even been occupied recently. They were good. Whoever they were. But not good enough.

Waiting in a crouched position, Jim took one last look at the blinking light on the locator pad. His invisible adversary waited for him there in the only stone structure in the center of camp. The community restroom, with its roof-level windows, was built like a bunker, and the concrete walls, easily a foot thick, muffled the already soft noises coming from inside.

Jim mulled over his options as he waited in the brush. The bunker's windows made it impossible to see inside, and he didn't relish the idea of facing his opponent in closed quarters without first having seen the battleground. The guy could probably hold up there indefinitely, depending on the status of his arsenal, which was, no doubt, impressive.

His ranged over the building one more time looking for a weakness of some kind and that's when he saw it. Something he missed the first time. Hidden beneath the jutting eaves of the roof was a surveillance camera, so small anyone but a Sentinel would have easily missed it entirely.

'Damn', he cursed silently. He was already made. Probably had been since the moment he reached the outskirts of the clearing. Why hadn't he noticed the camera before?

The sound of an ominous click caused Jim's spine to instinctively straighten, and suddenly the smell of another human wafted over him. Too late to do him any good. His exhaustion and his reeling brain had caused him to miss the presence of an intruder.

"That was a nice touch with the squirrel," said the Invisible Man with a smooth and confident voice. "It even had me fooled for about five minutes. Stand up, Detective," the man ordered.

Jim complied slowly, mentally debating whether he could draw, turn and shoot with enough speed to take his opponent. He decided against it. The man could have shot him in the back, or from any distance away -- could have -- but didn't. This bastard wanted to flaunt his victory. He wanted his quarry to know that the game was over. Checkmate. Jim had seen countless others like him in his line of work. The criminals who were frighteningly intelligent, planning every aspect of their crimes to the smallest, intricate detail. But always -- always -- they were stupid about one thing. It was what Blair liked to call the 'validation factor'. They wanted it. They needed it beyond all else. No one had ever patted them on the back to reward them for a job well done, so they had to do it for themselves. Self-validation.

But, with a hunter as smug and as arrogant as this one, Jim suspected he could probably talk his way out of his situation, or at least maneuver into a more advantageous one. The key was to not go against the grain. For his tactic to work, he would have to give the man exactly what he wanted.

"I didn't think it would work," Jim said. "Somehow, I thought you'd be too smart for that."

"Turn around, James. Please take off your vest, slowly and carefully, and place it on the ground, the gun as well. Don't try anything stupid. When you've done that, put your hands behind your head."

With cautious and calculated movement, Jim obeyed the terrorist's demands. After placing his vest and service weapon on the ground, he linked his fingers behind his head, leisurely taking his time before raising his eyes to meet his captor's, as though he were in no rush to get a good look at the man. Jim's gaze met brown eyes shining with confidence born of long-planned victory. Jim's eyes squinted slightly. He had seen this man before. Unconsciously, he breathed in through his nostrils, cataloguing the man's scent. There was definitely something familiar about it. He opted to leave the issue alone for the moment.

"You took out all of my men," he said. "Men I worked very hard to train. I'd kill you right now if you weren't worth so much."

"Worth?"

"A hundred thousand dollars for capturing you alive. I guess I should thank you for killing my men, after all." The man laughed as though finally catching the punch line of an old joke. "Now I won't have to split the money."

"A hundred thousand? Is that all you were offered?" Jim shrugged his shoulders carelessly, attempting to convey something he knew that the captor did not. A look of anger filled the man's eyes and suddenly Jim knew where he had seen the man before. "Granados."

"It's just one of many names," he answered. "Just another character for a specific situation."

Granados, the fugitive, had worn a thick beard from perhaps months of living in a boxcar at the Cascade train yards. He had been filthy then and wearing clothing from a rag bin, but now he stood before Jim clean shaven, and garbed in a sleek black outfit designed for stealthy movement.

"You're with The Company," Jim guessed.

"CIA? Hardly." Granados scoffed. "They're a bit too controlling for my tastes. No, my employer gives me a free hand. Give it up, Ellison, you're not that good of a detective. However, since I sympathize with your driving need to know, even if I don't understand it, I'll tell you as much as I can. This has nothing to do with government. This is more of a 'free enterprise' issue. Supply and Demand, Detective. Someone has demanded you, and I'm the supplier."

"Who?"

"My employer wishes the introductions to take place in person, you understand."

"Tell me something, Granados, or whatever your name is. What about the murders?"

"I had to get your attention somehow, didn't I? Although, I must say, you were awfully slow on the uptake, especially considering your record. In fact, I suspect that without little Sandburg you might never have figured it out. I practically left you a trail of bread crumbs." Granados made a 'tssk-ing' sound with his tongue. Jim noted that the man had lowered his weapon slightly. "For a while I worried that your abilities might have been exaggerated."

"So, being captured was part of the plan?"

"Everything was part of the plan, Detective. How else was I supposed to bring the two of you together?"

"Cecilia."

"Ah, yes, the lovely Marshal Dillon. Her abilities were merely rumor in the Service. But rumors always find their way to the right ears -- or the wrong ones. A fugitive on the loosse," he said. "What better way to put her to the test?"

"And our partners?"

"Sorry, Ellison. I don't take prisoners and I don't leave witnesses. It just wouldn't be very professional of me. Besides, my employer doesn't believe they would be useful, and therefore not worth my effort to let them live. I must admit though, I felt a slight pang of regret over having to do away with the lovely Toni Holland. I think we could have had something."

"You're a sick bastard."

"No, just a workaholic." Granados reached behind him with his free hand and withdrew a small pistol from the waistband of his black pants. He placed the other gun in the holster strapped to his thigh, sure to keep the second weapon train on Jim's body.

Jim's pupils constricted as his vision honed in on the barrel of the second pistol. Buried within the chamber was not a bullet, but a dart undoubtedly filled the same drug Cecilia was doped with. Quickly calculating, Jim figured that with his size and weight, the sedative probably only had a slight chance of working. Granados didn't know that. Jim recalled the drugged syringe Colonel Oliver had administered to him years ago. It was meant to kill him, but his Sentinel abilities had somehow compensated for the deadly poison injected into his bloodstream. A slow smile spread across Jim's face.

Before Granados could inquire about the sudden change in Ellison's facial expression, Jim's foot crashed across his arm, dislodging the weapon from his hand and sending it flying through the trees. For a moment, Granados' eyes were trained on the flying pistol as though it moved in slow motion. Jim's fist cracked across his distracted face, sending the man stumbling backwards.

Granados recovered quickly, and stopped Jim's incoming second punch with an inner forearm block. He followed the block with an upset punch to Ellison's gut, this time sending Jim backwards as he hunched over to catch his stolen breath. An axe kick, aimed to center of Jim's back, sent him sprawling to the dirt.

"I know everything about you, Ellison. I know your fighting style. I know all your moves, James. I've done my homework. I even knew that you would ditch your partner in favor of taking me out all by yourself. You probably told him you wanted him to be safe. Am I right? You are so pathetically predictable. You really should work on that."

"I'll take it under advisement," Jim gasped as he staggered to his feet.

"Always trying to keep little Sandburg safe," he said. "You really should consider cutting him loose, you know. He holds you back, Ellison. Sure, he's a good detective, but let's face it, he makes you a glorified babysitter."

Filled with rage at Granados' words, Jim barreled into the man with all of his strength, driving him back into a tree. Granados' knee shot up to catch Jim in his already bruised belly. Jim managed to land another punch before staggering back again.

"Hit a nerve, did I? The kid's that important to you, is he? Some sort of paternal manifestation? I really am intrigued, James. Too bad I don't have time to delve into the issue." Granados threw a kick aimed for his quarry's head, but Jim blocked it before it could do any damage. He grasped Granados' suspended ankle tightly with both hands while kicking out his foot to sweep the man's standing leg out from underneath him. Granados had just enough time to look surprised, before crashing to the ground on his back.

"Were you expecting that?" Jim taunted, his heavy boots kicking Granados in his exposed ribs. The sound of bones cracking greeted Jim's ears with solid satisfaction. He reached down and curled his fingers around Granados' shirt, hauling him to his feet. Before the fallen man could recover his footing, Jim threw him back up against the tree. Jim's elbow struck him hard in the chest, pinning him against the tree trunk and stealing his breath away.

With his free hand Jim reached down to draw the man's gun, which he shoved into Granados gut. "Game over, Granados."

"You can kill me, James, but more will follow. There are always more."

"They will always fail," Jim seethed.

"Someone will be good enough to capture you."

"Maybe," he spat. "But they'll just end up with a useless Sentinel."

"My employer is very good at getting people to do what they don't want." Granados laughed at that, blood spilling forth from his nose.

"That may be, but he'll never understand the true strength of a Sentinel. You said you did your homework, but if that were true, you would have uncovered all of my secrets. As it is, you barely scratched the surface. The truth is, without Sandburg, I'm nothing but a walking migraine." The man's eyes widened at that, as the strange relationship between the partners came into sudden and clear focus. Jim released his hold on Granados, but the force that kept him pinned to the tree was the same force that kept him on his feet. He slumped to the ground, landing hard on his knees.

Jim relieved Granados' gun of its ammunition before throwing it into the trees. Turning, he limped over to his discarded tac vest with the intention of locating his hand cuffs, but the sound of metal sliding on metal brought his feet to a halt. In what seemed like slow motion, Jim turned, already knowing that he would see a knife in the hand of his prisoner. Granados had somehow managed to get to his feet, grimacing with the pain of broken ribs, as he drew his arms back to launch the dagger.

Jim's senses went into overdrive, his eyes focusing on the slow motion knife, and his ears hearing only the sound of his own breath. Time came to a halt, though his mind had enough to time to tell him he would be unable to get out of the way before the knife struck him the chest. His hand groped instinctively for a weapon that wasn't there. His only other option was to drop to the ground, but before he could complete the action, Granados' chest blew apart, splattering blood and bone fragments in a thousand directions.

Death came instantly for the mercenary, and Jim's eyes locked morbidly onto the dead man as his corpse plummeted to the ground, lifeless fingers releasing their grip on the lethal dagger.

Jim's senses searched out his savior, his eyes following the invisible trajectory the bullet had taken.

Blair stood a stone's throw away, his gun still outstretched, a wispy stream of smoke rising from the barrel of his Glock nine millimeter. Jim limped over to his partner with his hands held out to attract his attention.

"Chief?" Jim placed his hand gently over the still-aimed weapon and pried it from Sandburg's hands. "You with me, Chief?"

Blair snapped suddenly out of his zone, his eyes seeking Jim's. "I told you, you needed backup," he rasped.

"Yes, you did, Blair. Yes, you did."

Detective Blair Sandburg had shot and killed a man in defense of his partner. It was something every cadet graduating from the Academy hoped they would never have to do. More than any other, the use of deadly force was one thing Jim had hoped that Blair would never have to experience. He had wanted to always be good enough and fast enough and smart enough that Blair would never be forced to fire his weapon in defense of his life or anyone else's. He knew that Blair's guilt over taking a human life could overwhelm him, but Jim's guilt was equally potent. He had gotten himself into a situation he couldn't fight or think his way out of by willfully denying his partner's backup, and for that, Blair Sandburg's innocence would be forever shattered.

Blair's eyes, normally bright with intellect and anticipation, were now dull. He had made a choice, the right one by most accounts, but his heart had not quite caught up with his mind. Jim placed his hand on the shoulder of his best friend and partner, and his delicate senses told him Blair was about to be hit with some pretty big emotional fallout. A second later the emotional train slammed into the younger detective's body and adrenaline tremors overtook him in earnest.

Blair's eyes wandered back to the corpse lying on the ground, but Jim grabbed both shoulders and turned Blair away from the gruesome sight. This time Blair's eyes were bright with unshed tears. "I killed him," he whispered.

Jim wrapped Blair in a fierce embrace in hopes of passing on the needed strength to his devastated Guide. Blair's forehead rested on Jim's hard chest as he finally let the tears fall. "I killed him." Blair's tears were eerily silent, with no sobbing or weeping, just a simple show of heartfelt emotion.

Jim stood there silently for a moment as his Guide gave in to emotional release. Then when he had witnessed enough of his friend's heartbreak he spoke. "I couldn't get out of it, Blair," he said. "I gave up my weapon, and it wasn't there when I needed it. I turned my back on him. He had me dead to rights. I did everything wrong." He pushed Blair back just enough to look him in the eye. "And you did everything right. You followed protocol. You backed up your partner, even though he was foolish enough to tell you he didn't need it. You saw that your partner's life was in immediate danger and you took steps to neutralize it. You acted on instinct, and followed your heart. It was a righteous shoot, Blair."

"Still hurts, man."

"I know, Chief. I know." Jim's gaze turned away from Blair, his ears catching something in the distance.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair deliberately turned his back on the dead man, resisting the temptation for one last look, as he swiped the tears from his face.

Jim listened for a moment longer before looking back at Blair. "The Cavalry's here."

Blair cocked his head in confusion for a moment before understanding dawned. "Someone should tell the Cavalry their timing sucks."

"I'll leave that to you," Jim said, throwing an arm over his Guide's shoulder and leading him in the direction of the voices that were now becoming audible to the average ear.

********************

"Since the crime was committed in a National Forest this falls under federal jurisdiction, Jim." Simon had been relieved to discover that his two best detectives had survived their mysterious ordeal, relatively intact. Upon discovering them in the heart of the Dixie National Forest, Simon Banks did what he did best -- he took charge. "The FBI's going to want to get your statements after you've all been checked out by a doctor."

"And tell them what, Simon? That a mercenary, hired by a mysterious benefactor, attempted to capture me and Cecilia because we have super powers?"

"Perhaps it would be best if we just kept this as close to the truth as possible. You came out here to hunt down a fugitive from justice, but instead came across a group of homicidal survivalists."

"That's sticking to the truth?" Jim asked, incredulously.

"Sorry, Jim. It's the best I can come up with on such short notice. Get with your partner and the others and get your stories straight." Simon's head cocked for an instant. "That's something I never thought I'd hear myself say." The Captain looked over at Jim, really seeing, for the first time, the battered condition of his friend. "How are you doing, Jim?"

"I'm fine -- physically. A little bruised and tired, but nothing you need to worry about."

"And Sandburg?" Simon asked.

Jim turned to meet Simon's eyes as he exhaled a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Worry, Simon."

The two men pivoted around as Detective Brown jogged up to them. "He's been sedated and loaded into the ambulance, Jim. You'd better hurry if you want to ride in with him."

"Thanks, H." Jim turned back to Simon with a question in his eyes.

"Go," said Simon, with a nod of his head. Before Simon could take it back, Jim limped off at his fastest speed, leaving Captain Banks and Henri Brown to each other.

"Is he going to be okay, Captain?"

"I hope so, H. God, I hope so."

********************
Iron County Hospital Cedar City, Utah

Jim could say one thing for the Feds. They were quick. Two agents from the Utah field office had arrived to take his statement before the doctor had completed her examination of Blair.

Jim sat in the waiting room, after having his own minor wounds attended to by an ER nurse. Unlike Blair, Cecilia and Maggie had been airlifted to the hospital, the worries caused by the unknown tranquilizer in their systems necessitating a doctor's exam as soon as humanly possible. Simon, Rafe, Brown, and Megan had been left in the park -- the first wave of the clean-up crew.

Jim told the agents as much as he could, leaving out the pertinent details regarding his and Cecilia's Sentinel abilities. He told them of the plane crash and his knowledge of its sabotage. He told them of the shooting by the river, the cave full of weapons and ammunition and their trek through the forest. Finally, he detailed for them the final showdown with Granados and Blair's part in the fugitive's death. The agents said that an official investigation into the shooting would be launched, but that they did not foresee problems in clearing Blair of any suspicions.

The agents also seemed to believe that the 'survivalists' targeted the women for sedation for nefarious reasons that should be obvious. Even a bunch of crazed survivalists get lonely for female companionship, apparently.

Jim answered all of their questions twice, before they finally left him alone, saying that they would return to get the others' statements when they were up to talking. Jim nodded a half-hearted agreement.

"Detective Ellison?" Jim's thoughts were interrupted by a young resident. Jim couldn't help but notice that the doctor was a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties who had to crane her neck to look up at him. 'Blair must be in seventh heaven,' he thought with an inner chuckle.

"I'm Detective Ellison," he answered.

"Detective Sandburg was sedated for the trip so that his trachea could avoid further swelling. Unfortunately, we were unable to fully determine the damage until the sedatives wore off."

"Is it bad?" Jim asked, his heart in his throat.

"Not as bad as it looks, Detective. The damage to the larynx is painful, but minor. His trachea and vocal chords will heal with a few days rest. He needs to stay as quiet as possible. Our first worry was that the swelling in his throat would cut off his air supply, but he's going to be fine. Just to be sure though, we've taken the precaution of putting him on oxygen. I would like him to stay overnight, so that we can keep an eye on him. I've prescribed a powerful anti-inflammatory for the swelling and a topical anesthesia for him to gargle, and he should avoid solid foods for at least seventy-two hours."

"Okay," Jim said. "Can I see him now?"

"Just try to keep him from talking too much, okay? I would demand complete silence, but after meeting your friend, I sense that would be asking the impossible."

"Thank you, doctor."

Jim located Blair with little trouble. His partner slept peacefully on the hospital bed, which had been tilted up to ease the breathing process. He mentally catalogued Blair's condition as he stood at the end of the bed. The bruising on his neck had darkened to deep purple and an oxygen tube wound around his ears and rested beneath his nostrils. He looked worn out.

"Hey, Jim. Take a picture, it'll last longer," Blair whispered without opening his eyes.

"The doctor says no talking, Chief."

"What do they know?"

"I mean it, Sandburg."

"Cecilia? Maggie?"

"The doctors are trying to figure out what the tranquilizer is that's in their systems, but the prognosis is good. We all made it out alive…thanks to you."

"Jim," Blair said with protest.

"No, Blair. I have some things to say and you're gonna shut up and listen. The doctor says you shouldn't be talking, which means, for once, I've got you right where I want you." Jim took a chair from the corner and moved to Blair's bedside. He settled into it and reached across to grasp his partner's forearm. "First, I have to tell you that I'm sorry."

"Sorry?"

"I put you in a position that required you to use deadly force, and that's something I hoped would never happen. I never wanted you to be driven to that point. I thought I was a better cop than that. I willfully ordered you to stay behind, when I should have demanded you back me up. I was wrong and you were right."

Blair's eyes grew to the size of saucers.

"That's right, Sandburg. Remember this moment, because it won't happen again."

Blair opened his mouth to speak.

"I'm not finished yet, Sandburg. Not by a long shot. I have something else to tell you. Thank you, Chief. You were faced with the most horrible decision I can imagine. You had to choose between my life and your innocence, and you chose my life. I can never thank you enough for that." Jim exhaled slowly, feeling the air burn his throat as it pushed out of his lungs. He looked up into his Guide's eyes. "I knew I was going to die, Blair. I reached for my gun and it wasn't there. I tried to move, but I couldn't. I knew, without a doubt in my mind, that Granados' knife was going to land in my chest. But you were there, Sandburg -- in the clinch. If I ever had any doubts about our partnership -- which I didn't -- but if I did, they were all erased today. I've always thought you were the best partner I could ever have and today you just proved it all over again. I hate that you had to prove it that way. I know you feel guilty, but just remember that most of the blame is mine. Let me be the guilty one here, Chief. I can't stand the thought of you beating yourself up emotionally for saving my sorry hide."

"Jim, stop."

"Blair…."

"Jim," Blair interrupted. "I didn't make a choice. There wasn't a choice to be made. When I was looking down the sight of my barrel at that guy…that man who was trying to kill you, I found something inside of myself that I never knew was there."

"What's that, Chief?"

"The protective instinct in its most primal state. When I pulled that trigger, I was filled with a rage I couldn't begin to describe -- didn't believe myself capable of. I became the tribal Guide, Jim -- protecting the Sentinel regardless of the cost to himself. Don't get me wrong, Jim, a part of me can't believe I did it and that part will always feel some measure of guilt. But then there's this other part of me that knows I didn't fail in my duty -- and takes comfort in that."

"So, you're okay then?"

"Not yet, Jim, but I will be. I think I'm going to just need a little time."

"Okay," Jim said, for lack of anything better. "Now, stop talking."

Blair responded with sarcastic salute and a smile that Jim was more than relieved to see.

********************

The next afternoon, Jim strolled into Blair's room to find him holding court with Maggie and Cecilia cast in the roles of adoring fans. He eavesdropped for a moment, before making his presence known, when his ears were greeted with the sound of Blair's laughter. 'He's laughing,' Jim thought. 'That's a good sign.'

"I think the idea has a lot of potential," Blair rasped as Jim entered the room.

"What idea is that, Chief?"

"Hey, Jim!" three voices said in unison. Jim smiled at Maggie and Cecilia, both of whom looked remarkably none the worse for wear after their little adventure in the woods.

Jim crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his partner. "What idea?"

"Can't a guy have some secrets with two beautiful ladies?" Blair's eyes danced with mischief. "What's the latest?"

"Three bodies and not an ID between them. Our fourth mercenary is in stable condition after surgery, but the doctors don't think he'll recover the ability to speak. The bodies in the plane have been taken in for autopsy. Ladies, you'll be happy to know that the Marshal Service has apologized for the 'computer glitch' that removed you both from the database. As it turned out, the remaining members of your team were called back to Houston for a non-existent emergency. They have each given statements that they were ordered to return to Houston by Deputy in Charge Clive Ballast, and they swear up and down that they spoke with you, via walkie-talkie, prior to their leaving.

"What about Ballast?" Cecilia asked.

"Disappeared without a trace. We have no proof that he even existed. No run-able prints, and the airport at Salt Lake has no record of the plane ever landing there."

"I knew that guy gave me the creeps! This whole thing has just weirded me out, man."

Jim's jaw clenched slightly as he looked over at the women. "Granados said something to me that got me thinking."

"Look out!"

"Aren't you supposed to be quiet?" Jim's hand smacked Blair on the top of the head. "Cecilia, Maggie," he began, "whoever it is that's behind this has eyes and ears everywhere --including the Service. You're gonna have to be especially careful now, so watch your sixes."

"That won't be a problem -- at least for a little while," Maggie asserted.

"Why's that?"

"Injured in the line of duty." Maggie shrugged. "Six weeks leave -- mandatory."

"You get six weeks off for being heavily sedated?"

"We were manipulated, deceived, chased through the woods, shot at, and basically terrorized. Our supervisors think we need the rest, and who are we to argue?"

"That's why we were thinking…." Cecilia trailed off, her eyes seeking Blair's assistance.

"Oh, yeah," he coughed. "We thought maybe once they've…we've…had a little time to heal and all the paperwork's taken care of….We thought, it might be okay if they came for a visit." Blair's eyes begged as though asking Dad if it would be okay to throw a slumber party.

"And the three of you thought this up together?" Jim's eyes squinted as they glared at each of them in turn.

"Well," Maggie began, "I really have a lot to learn, and we thought it might be in our best interest to learn as much as possible before going back on active duty."

"It would give us all a chance to get to know each other better," Cecilia spoke softly, her voice not betraying the enthusiasm her eyes couldn't hide.

"C'mon, Jim." Blair made one last attempt.

The room became silent as everyone waited for Jim to cast the deciding vote.

"Well," he drawled as his eyes caught Blair's gaze, "I guess Sandburg and I might have a thing or two we could learn from you."

A grin like only Sandburg could make exploded on Blair's face. "All right!"

"On one condition!" Jim stabbed the air with a single finger to put a stop the premature celebration. "You," he pointed to Sandburg, "must remain totally non-vocal for twenty-four hours."

"But, Jim…"

"Starting now." Blair's mouth snapped shut.

"And Jim?" Cecilia caught his attention. "If you're worried at all about the whole territory issue…you know…me coming to Cascade…we could always meet somewhere. I hear that Oregon has some really great fishing spots."

"You fish?"

"I have to get out of the city sometimes."

"Camping and fishing," Jim mused. "It could be…fun." Jim caught some Blair movement out of the corner of his eyes, and turned to see the bedridden man waving his arms and shaking his head emphatically. "But I think Blair is voting no."

"He doesn't like to fish?" Maggie asked.

"No, he loves it, but I think he's having flashbacks of the last time we went fishing. It was a nightmare"

"C'mon," Cecilia prodded. "Two Sentinels and two Guides. What could possibly go wrong?"

Blair shuddered with a groan, rolling his eyes, and the sound of Jim's laughter echoed down the hospital corridor.

The End

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