When asked, the gang at Major Crimes would not be able to pinpoint exactly when it all began. Some said it started when Detective Sandburg first avoided that header down the stairs on his way to work - because the elevator was out yet again and Mrs. Crawford's cat was on the prowl. A lucky grab at the stair rail had saved him - Detective Ellison could swear to the fact that Sandburg was headed for the ER if he'd missed.
Others said it was when Detective Sandburg had to park out on the street instead of his assigned space in the garage because a truck was blocking the driveway. At the same instant he would have been stepping out of his car a squad car had a blowout and plowed into his empty space - sure death for anyone standing next to their car. Jim Ellison had watched in horror from where he'd parked his truck - they often arrived in separate vehicles these days. No one knew why and Ellison and Sandburg weren't talking.
A few said it was when he prevented the suspect from the Lowell murder case from escaping by throwing one of the straight chairs in the foyer at the fleeing man's legs, tangling him up and forcing him to drop the gun that he'd snagged from a rookie's holster. The gun went off and witnesses swore they could see Sandburg's hair ruffle in the breeze from the bullet as it passed by his head.
Most, however, laid the blame squarely on Captain Banks shoulders. Because, when his commanding officer heard all about his detective's hectic morning - and the guy had only been awake a few hours - Banks said in a laughing tone:
"Jeez, Sandburg, you should buy a lottery ticket!"
Said suggestion was taken up immediately and a quick syndicate was formed consisting of Captain Banks, Detectives Sandburg, Ellison, Rafe and Brown and Captain Taggert. Detective Sandburg bought the tickets on his lunch break, tucked the tickets under a fridge magnet and promptly forgot all about it.
Which was why, when the lottery tickets actually won, Sandburg had to work really hard to convince everyone he wasn't pulling their legs when he announced their winnings.
"Three thousand dollars!" Banks nearly spit his coffee across the room as his detectives did the happy dance and started planning what to do with their share.
Plans and schemes were tossed around, but again it was Captain Banks who came up with the fateful suggestion:
"There's a company that specializes in retreats - you know a nice lake, good fishing, hiking, a cabin in the woods…"
He knew his men well, and while Brown was an armchair sportsman and Rafe dressed like something out of GQ, the idea had merit. The six men were close enough friends that the idea of flying into remote wilderness for a few weeks vacation sans television was attractive. The great outdoors had become a Major Crimes hobby. Some departments played darts or entered basketball competitions, but Major Crimes went camping.
His Guide, of course, regularly dragged the Sentinel off to the back of beyond in an effort to keep him from being overwhelmed by the City. Before the dissertation mess, the gang at Major Crimes had thought this camping obsession was Jim's way of extending the weird hippie's survival skills.
Post dissertation they had cornered Sandburg and asked him thousands of questions, gaining a bit of insight into what the Sentinel in Jim Ellison needed, and also a bit of an idea of the role the Guide played in all that. Simon was also cornered and questioned closely as they realised he had been protecting the pair since the beginning.
Now the Sentinel and Guide looked forward to the isolation and the chance to sharpen their skills and relax their vigilance a little.
Taggert and Banks both enjoyed fishing on a regular basis - they often took Daryl with them. Daryl was away with his mother at this time, so he would have to miss out.
Rafe and Brown had both been known to camp out occasionally so the idea appealed with all the guile of a rarely indulged treat. And since they were 'cabining' not camping the two men would have a degree of comfort that they usually lacked.
Bookings were made schedules and case loads cleared, leave approved and bags were packed. It was promising to be a vacation to remember.
Blair loaded his backpack and sleeping bag into the cargo area of the seaplane and turned for Jim's. His partner grinned at him and handed it over before turning to collect the fishing gear they'd packed. Simon was talking to the pilot - a slender longhaired brunette in hiking boots, tight shorts and a singlet top.
The plane rocked on the placid lake, surrounded by forest and mountains. This was the lower lake - the cabin that Simon had hired for them was at a second lake, much higher in the mountains and well isolated. They'd required fishing licenses and a hunting license for the rifle that Taggert had brought along. He had decided to bring it after hearing how isolated the spot truly was.
"After all, with Darwin along anything could happen," Taggert had teased and Blair had laughed. He accepted his role as trouble magnet in the team with good humor - after all it wasn't without a grain of truth.
The cabin they were headed to was high enough to allow for warm summer days but cold nights, so the six men had packed a variety of gear. Blair had also brought his chess set and a pack of cards. The cabin ran its appliances with solar power and wood fires - a mixture of old fashioned rustic and modern technology that had prompted an impromptu lecture for Jim on the trip up. They had driven across state to get to the lake, Jim and Blair in the truck and the others in Simon's car. Jim had been happy to see his partner back to his old exuberance and listened just enough to keep up his end of the discussion. It wasn't that he disliked listening to Blair - it was that they didn't really need words to communicate to each other. Words were just a by-product.
Simon handed his gear to Blair and joined his friends in the plane. Jim watched the young woman seal the cargo hold on their luggage - part of the deal included food and the cabin was already stocked - and watched Blair leap up into the cockpit. Jim got into the back - all those big cops made for close quarters - and grinned as the pilot checked their door before casting off from the landing and starting the engines.
The engines were uncomfortably noisy for the Sentinel, and he grimaced and dialed the noise down as they lifted smoothly from the surface of the lake. Taggert put a concerned hand on his wrist and Jim gestured to his ears. Before Taggert could do more than nod a closed hand reached back from the cockpit and tapped at Jim's. He obediently put his palm out and Blair dropped the white noise earplugs he'd bought for Jim after the infamous impacted earwax. Jim grinned at his Guide and slipped the plugs in eagerly, unable to disguise a sigh of relief as the painful noise abated to tolerable levels. Joel patted his leg and nodded to Blair who turned back and looked out at the beautiful view below. Blair didn't let Jim use the earplugs often, not wanting to create a dependency for the Sentinel that would ultimately dull his senses. This was another sign that they were on vacation.
A river that tumbled along its rocky bed with raw power fed the lake. The forest sprawled beneath them as the plane banked to follow the general direction of the river. In the distance, mountains towered above the greenery and the furthest peaks bore a cap of permanent snow. It looked idyllic - unspoiled and untamed. Blair exchanged a smile of delight with the pilot and leaned back again. She glanced into the passenger bay behind her and leaned over to say a few words in Blair's ear before unstrapping and climbing into the back - much to the nervous horror of her passengers. She sent Jim up front with a gesture and curled into his seat.
"Who's flying the plane?" Brown yelled over the engines and she gestured to Blair. The noise prevented proper conversation, but in an emergency you could make yourself heard. This was definitely an emergency.
"He taught me how to fly one of these things and you all looked a little crowded," she yelled back with a shrug and curled her legs up towards her chest neatly. The extra room was a bonus, and they stretched out a little more. It didn't stop Simon from keeping a close eye on the two men in the cockpit.
The flight lasted an hour and then Blair circled the lake gently before bringing the plane down to a soft landing on its still surface. He kept the engines revving to reach the landing, cutting them expertly to drift the last few meters. The pilot was already out on the float; she leapt ashore and tied off with the ease of long practice.
"Way to go Hairboy," Brown said in gentle wonder and Blair shot him the trademark million watt grin.
"Let me guess - you spent a summer with your uncle flying," Jim pulled the earplugs out and got out of the cockpit gracefully. Blair laughed, as did the pilot. She opened the cargo bay and started hauling the gear out, tossing it to Jim, who made a neat stack on the landing dock.
"Thank you for flying Sandburg airlines, we hope you enjoyed your flight," Blair faked the sing song voice of a bored airhostess and got a laugh from his friends in reward.
"Actually, this is his plane - he just lets me borrow it," the pilot told them as Blair joined her in unloading.
"Uncle Mauritius loved the old girl and left her to me in his will. I would have had to let her rust to pieces or lend her to a friend starting a charter business. Guess which was the better option?" Blair straightened with the last bag and let the pilot close and secure the hatch. Simon shook his head and decided not to delve any further - it was just the Sandburg Zone at work again and it didn't pay to get too close. It sometimes seemed like the kid knew just about every person on the planet - if not personally then as the friend of a friend.
"The cabin has a radio in case of emergencies," the pilot said as she stood on the dock, "There's a list of emergency contacts and stuff on the wall behind it, including my frequency. Here are the keys - make sure the place is locked when I come get you - it doesn't pay to leave it open for the animals. And don't feed the wildlife either. I'll see you all in two weeks. Enjoy your stay."
"Later man," Blair grinned and bent to get the ropes. He shoved the plane with his foot and it floated away from the dock slowly. The pilot waited to make sure the props were clear and restarted the engines, taxiing away and lifting up from the lake smoothly. She dipped the wings in salute and flew back the way they'd come. There was a row boat pulled up on shore and turned upside down to keep the weather out, the six men passed it as they carried their gear up the path to the cabin that sat at the top of a small rise.
The cabin was a single story structure, with part of the roof covered with silver solar panels. A deep verandah surrounded it, and you climbed three steps to reach it. Once inside you were in the first of three rooms - the main living area, lounge dining and kitchen combined. A huge fireplace dominated one wall and lamps hung from hooks in the smoky ceiling. You walked through a doorway to the barracks part of the cabin; four bunk beds set against the walls with a pot-bellied stove in the center of the room to warm it. Through another door to the bathroom - a fairly simple affair, sink shower and toilet.
Fishing gear was placed out on the veranda and Joel secured his gun up on the shelf above the radio. They were all adults and knew better than to fool around with it, but gun safety was second nature to cops, so it went up on the shelf out of the way. They bickered comfortably about who was going to sleep where and Blair laid a fire ready in the barracks stove, adding a supply of wood for the night to come.
Jim prowled the cabin restlessly, earning himself a few looks from Simon and Joel. While everyone else seemed to be relaxing Jim was merely getting tenser. After an hour of watching Jim prowl Simon couldn't stand it and called Blair aside.
"What's wrong with Jim?" Simon asked bluntly and Blair smiled, patting his boss' arm.
"He's just a little cooped up Simon, relax ok? We're going for a hike this afternoon and we'll see you in a few days. You won't know him when we get back," Blair replied easily and made as if to head for the kitchen, but Simon grabbed his arm.
"The idea was for us all to holiday together, Sandburg," Simon expressed his annoyance with a little shake, "Not to run off and play Mountain Man."
A hand latched onto Simon's wrist and he found himself facing one very annoyed Sentinel.
"Hands off," Jim growled and Blair smiled easily, pulling Simon free and stepping in front of him. He stroked Jim's wrist and spoke too quietly for others to hear. Brown and Rafe were watching uneasily from the kitchen and Joel leaned in the doorway of the barracks. After a moment Jim nodded to Blair and went out. Blair blew out a breath and turned to Simon.
"We just need a couple of days to reconnect Jim to his senses and his center. You know, run wild for a while. It's been a while since we got out of the city and we need the break. We'll be back in two days, well three if you count today, and everything will be fine. Leave us some fish to catch, ok?" Blair waited anxiously - willing Simon to understand.
"No problem," Joel replied from his place in the doorway, "But I make you no guarantee."
"Thanks a lot," Blair mock grumbled, picking up his pack and Jim's from near the doorway. He waved casually and bounced out. Through the kitchen window Rafe and Brown saw him hand Jim his pack and pick up the Indian fishing spear he'd brought along. Jim secured his own collapsible rod and turned without a word to stride into the forest, Blair at his side as always.
They waited until dinner was over that evening to discuss what had happened.
"I thought he was gonna hit you Simon," Rafe shook his head, "I mean, we all know Jim's protective of The Kid, but gee!"
"My fault," Simon sighed, "I shouldn't have touched the Guide."
"Huh?" Brown frowned, "Why would that matter? We touch Hairboy all the time - he gets noogies and mock punches all the time. And Jim is always touching him."
"Yeah, but that's when Jim is in a good mood," Taggert said slowly, thinking it out, "Is it because he was so tense? You shouldn't touch Darwin when Jim's tense?"
"Umm, not really," Simon wondered when he became the expert on all things Sentinel - that was Blair's job dammit, "Ok, here's what I know. The Sentinel is kind of hard wired to protect his Guide. So when Jim's senses act up or he's under stress his instinct to protect Sandburg is strongest. When that instinct is acting up you don't touch Sandburg because the Sentinel sees that as a threat. Even though Sandburg wasn't scared of me - hell The Kid knows I'd never hurt him - the Sentinel saw a threat and reacted. So then Blair had to defuse the situation."
"And what was with that? Why should it matter if they go off for a few days?" Brown kept his tone curious, not judgmental and Simon shook his head.
"They're living in the twentieth century, but answering urges that come from before the first. I guess it makes me uncomfortable that they can be so … primitive. That and the fact that Sandburg's a trouble magnet," Simon sighed, "It's just my prejudices showing."
"Does Blair have Sentinel instincts too?" Rafe pondered and Joel Taggert spoke up.
"Hell yeah," he shook his head, "He's even more protective of Ellison than Ellison is of him. It's just subtler. I ran into him one weekend at the market near my place - they'd run out of a particular cleaning agent that Jim could tolerate so the kid drove all the way across town to get him some more."
"Blair would do that for anyone though, he's a giving kinda guy," Brown protested and Taggert shook his head. He had a feeling they had yet to see Blair give in to his instincts and told the others that.
"If it's genetic to be a Sentinel then maybe its also genetic to be a Guide," Rafe said suddenly and Simon nodded.
"I think it is - the Sentinel and Guide are bound together. But it's Ellison and Sandburg who are friends," he agreed. They sat staring into the fire for a while in silence and then Simon laughed.
"Even without Sandburg we got into the Sandburg Zone," he explained when they looked at him questioningly and got a laugh too, "Let's break out the cards, gentlemen. With Sandburg gone we might as well get in some practice."
"Sounds like a plan, Simon," Joel laughed and went to collect the cards Blair had left out on the counter.
Blair was right. He and Jim came swinging along the lakeside with easy relaxed strides late one afternoon right on schedule and dropped their packs up at the cabin before going out onto the landing and waving to their friends who were fishing from the boat. The two disappeared to clean up and start supper. By the time the boat was packed up and the others reached the cabin Blair had the fixings of a stew ready - all he needed to add was the three fish they'd caught between them and leave it in the wood fired oven to bake slowly.
Jim was indeed relaxed. He bantered with his friends while Blair cooked and persuaded Simon to give him a game of chess while the others cleaned up and started the fires to warm the cabin. The temperature dropped rapidly at night when the sun was gone and the men had learned to heat the cabin with a minimum of firewood.
The smell of the stew flooded the cabin and had stomachs rumbling in anticipation. Blair joined the others in front of the fire and they indulged in the time old male bonding ritual - BS.
Dinner was eaten at the battered wooden table and the cards broke out after that. Jim elected to play chess with Blair - he'd beaten Simon pretty comprehensively before dinner - and they set the board up at the corner of the table to keep company with their friends.
At the end of their first week their neighbors discovered the men from Cascade.
They'd all decided to fish from the boat that morning and piled in. Blair had opted to dress in only one layer of anything and no shoes to boot, so when Jim 'accidentally' nudged him off his perch on the gunwale and into the cold water he was in no real danger of drowning.
Taggert and Brown laughed and clapped a standing Jim so hard on the back that he ended up in the drink too, surfacing in time to see them high five each other. Blair was already swimming for the shore - a good distance away but an easily manageable one - so Jim shook the water out or his ears and followed his Guide.
They were making lunch for their friends - and each man was contemplating his revenge - when Jim stiffened and grabbed his partner's arm. Blair looked up in amused confusion, but all traces of his smile vanished when he realised the Sentinel was on full alert.
"What?" Blair asked too softly to be heard by anyone else. Jim frowned and then urged the other man out of the kitchen.
"Go pack as much gear as you can - sleeping bags too," Jim whispered in his ear and turned to start collecting as much portable food as possible including the sandwiches they'd been making. Luckily there were no cupboards to unpack into - everyone had pretty much kept their gear in their bags and the dirty stuff in a pile. Blair quickly rolled the sleeping bags, zipped up duffels and packs and added a few blankets to the pile of gear. He hurried out with one of the blankets and Jim swept the food he'd gathered into it, before sending Blair back into the barracks room. Moving faster now the Sentinel snagged Joel's gun and the ammunition. He spent a few minutes loading it before going to help his Guide pack the food into the bags and then carry everything into the bathroom. The bathroom was on the other side of the cabin from the lake and that suited Jim just fine. First his Guide then the packs and lastly himself went through the window. Shouldering four of the packs, Blair handed two to Jim who led the way off the veranda and into the forest. He kept them in a circling pattern for an hour and Blair winced when the cabin exploded into flames.
The Sentinel kept them hidden for another hour and then headed back towards the lake.
"Jim, you want to tell me what the hell's going on? Where are the others?" Blair barely breathed when he caught sight of the devastated cabin. A sudden thought made him blanch and Jim shook his head, putting a hand on Blair's arm.
"They're alive, Chief," Jim replied, looking at the hungry flames, "I heard a party of men come through the woods - along that trail that we used. They spotted the row boat and well… let's just say that from the comments they're into racial supremacy and survival."
"Extremists," Blair fought down the impulse to beat his head on the ground, "Can't we just take a holiday Jim? Huh? Hang out without the crap we deal with every day following us?"
Jim nodded, his jaw clenched. His Guide had to know the rest, but the thought of what the men had said was turning his stomach. As always Blair knew the score - his experience with the department and knowledge of human nature standing him in good stead.
"Let me guess - they're going to have themselves a little hunt - our friends are going to be hunted like animals, probably one at a time after being beaten and starved," Blair said it in a resigned voice and Jim whipped his head around to stare at his Guide.
"You heard them?" Jim sounded shocked because he was. Blair shook his head and sighed.
"Isn't that the kind of crap these morons always come up with? Besides I was channeling a movie - you mean I was right?" the Guide let his horror show, "Shit Jim! We've gotta get after them!"
"We will, Chief," Jim promised, "But first we gotta find ourselves a stronghold. C'mon."
Blair helped his partner balance his load of packs before gathering his own and moving out smartly. Jim carried the lighter burden in deference to the rifle he carried - carrying a loaded gun was tricky at best, and he needed to be able to move quickly to defend them. Jim kept his senses trained on the trail of the extremists while Blair scouted the more immediate terrain for a defensible position. It was nearly dark when they reached the rocky outcrop that marked the beginning of really steep mountain terrain and Blair found them a well-hidden cave. Jim approved it and they hid the packs.
Then Jim led the way to the compound. It was well dark by the time they got there and Blair was dependent on Jim for his sight.
The compound was lit by a few arc lamps that ran on battery powered generators. A high wooded stockade had been built around it - surrounding the prefab huts and shacks the extremists had built.
"No women or children," Jim reported to Blair as he swept the place with hearing sight and smell, "I'm guessing these guys are into the manly type of love."
"Gods, you don't think they'd…" Blair trailed off in horror and Jim shrugged. Not that he didn't care, but he knew they had to remain focussed now. Blair nodded to himself and tucked his body in behind Jim's shoulder.
"What's the plan then?" Blair asked after an hour and Jim looked down at him steadily.
"I can cover you - you go get the guys out," Jim sighed, "It sucks as a plan, but it's the best I can do."
"Hmm," Blair murmured, "We need a bigger edge than surprise."
Jim looked down in fond exasperation and saw that Blair had an idea. He raised his eyebrows patiently and Blair offered a crooked smile.
"I don't think Sandburg and Ellison can get the Major Crimes team out of there," Blair took a deep breath as Jim frowned in concern, "But the Sentinel and the Guide can release their warriors from the enemy's camp."
Jim felt his jaw drop in surprise and he gripped Blair's shoulder in concern. Blair had always worried that when one of them gave in to their instincts the other would be unable to bring them back. That was why Blair rarely gave in to the pull of his instincts. He walked a fine line - acknowledging what the Guide demanded yet remaining firmly in control. The Sentinel allowed no such line to be walked; though Jim could rein the instincts in for a little while. But in the end the Sentinel always won out.
Now Blair was suggesting that they not only listen to those instincts, they give themselves over to them. Jim looked back at the compound and kneaded the tense muscles under his palm. Blair leant into the touch and Jim nodded.
"Ok, Chief. The Sentinel and the Guide have control," Jim sighed, "You just come back to me, you hear? I don't want to spend the rest of my days explaining electricity to a throwback to pre-civilized times."
"You calling me a caveman?" Blair smiled, these words had special meaning to the Sentinel and Guide. Jim smiled back and touched his forehead to Blair's.
"Watch out when you cross the road," he whispered, "C'mon - let's go storm the castle."
Simon sighed and moved away from the wall a little. They'd been testing the construction of their prison - a shack in the center of the compound - ever since they'd been thrown in there. The bright lights and deep shadows made what they could see of the compound a confusing jumble of buildings. The cracks in the walls also let in enough light for them to see each other a little.
His men were bruised. They'd been beaten - just enough to get them in line and keep them off balance during the trek here. Their attackers had jumped them when they docked for lunch. Fighting in a rowboat was problematical at the best of times, with an AK-47 in your face it was impossible. As it was they were lucky they hadn't been shot out of hand.
None of them had so much as glanced at the cabin - hoping that the two men making lunch weren't so relaxed as to be oblivious. Two of the party had stayed behind while the other six herded their captives away. Simon had shuddered when the smoke from the cabin became visible and sent up a quick prayer his two remaining men had escaped detection. Their skin colour would not make them valuable to their captors. Sandburg was too much the hippie, and while Ellison would be seen as a potential convert that would end the minute the extremists tried to separate him from Sandburg.
His men were thirsty and hungry too - breakfast was a long time ago and they'd brought no water out on the boat. They were silent - unsure how closely they were being watched. It was better to be silent than to let slip something that could be used against them or their hopefully free and uninjured companions. They watched through the cracks in the walls, unwilling to be taken by surprise again. The hatred and threats made by their captors left no doubt in anyone's mind what was going to happen to them here.
Taggert shifted from where he was crouched. He beckoned Simon over with a wave of the hand - or at least that's what it looked like in the near darkness. Simon tapped his shoulder in a 'what's up' kind of way and Taggert pointed. Simon leant over and frowned. Was the shadow moving? Was it a trick?
His tenseness communicated itself to the others and they pressed closer to the walls of their prison, trying to pierce the darkness. After a few tense minutes Brown jerked back and the others twisted to look. Outside, someone was crouched against their prison wall. A single word was said very quietly.
You couldn't have heard it a meter away, but the men trapped in the shack were much closer. They shifted, moving into a defensible circle uneasily. There was a heartbeat of silence and then -
The explosion split the night, shook the walls of the shack and woke their captors. Later the prisoners would discover that most of the doors in the compound had been jammed shut, and the sentries knocked out. Right now all they knew was the immediate confusion of the explosion, the reactions of their captors and that of the wild beast that was battering at the door to the cabin.
An inhuman scream sounded and the door was ripped from the hinges, falling to the ground. For a wild moment a man was silhouetted in the frame - hair swirling wildly, arms raised to attack or defend. Then he stepped forward and Simon recognized Blair - more by his clothes than his face.
"Move," Blair ordered in a voice that held none of its usual warmth or charm. He whirled, crouched to the side and gestured them forward. Simon took the lead and Taggert the rear. Blair ran point, directing them back along the route he'd come, a route of jammed doors and strategic cover. Every now and then the sound of Taggert's hunting rifle would crack across the noise of the confusion and Blair would grunt in satisfaction. Simon realised the Sentinel was providing cover fire and urged his people over the wall quickly.
Blair directed them into the forest and they stumbled past the Sentinel in a hurry, chivvied by the impatient Guide. The Sentinel growled as the Guide passed and received a low chuff in return. Simon ran as fast as he could along the rocky terrain that Blair pointed to, gasping for breath and monitoring his men. They were all feeling the effects of no food and the previous beating now - it was slowing them down. The Guide indicated the direction he wanted them to head in and they moved as quickly as they could, losing track of the Guide as they did so. The trees here were sparser, allowing more moonlight to pass down to their level. The curse of that was evident when the extremist stepped out in front of them. He laughed and raised his gun, preparing to fire.
The Guide leapt out of the tree above him with a snarl, landing feet first on his shoulders and driving him into the ground. The Guide rolled smoothly to his feet, shook his prey hard and dropped him before throwing back his head and howling triumphantly. There was an answering scream from the not so distant Sentinel and the Guide turned to face his warriors. At a gesture Simon grabbed the weapon and they were on the move again.
They reached the cave at dawn. The Guide ushered them in and over to the packs, indicating they should bed down. They did so gingerly, not really interested in exploring the packs without direct permission from the man in front of them. There was something in the way he stood that spoke of command and the expectation of strict obedience. No one wanted to challenge that.
The shadows at the cave entrance bulged and the Sentinel entered. The looped rifle slung over his shoulder and the feline grace with which he moved added a menacing air to the familiar form. While Ellison had gone on the warpath at a crime scene or around the station modern society had always leant an air of constraint to his menace. Here there was nothing to inhibit him.
Sentinel and Guide moved together, stroking each other's faces and inspecting the other for injuries. Then the Sentinel went to stand guard and the Guide moved over to the packs. The first aid kit was unpacked along with sandwiches and water. The Shaman took the place of the Guide and tended to the warriors under his care with a gentle devotion.
Then the Guide and Sentinel ate while on guard and the warriors slept.
Simon opened his eyes and wondered who he'd see when he looked over at the cave entrance. Stiff from sleeping on the ground and full from the water he'd been given Simon rose carefully. Blair turned his head and smiled, making a Shhh noise and then waving Simon over.
"Stay in that line of rocks there for the best cover and nature's bathroom," Blair whispered quietly. Jim was asleep, leaning up against his friend, undisturbed by the low voice. Simon nodded and crept out - returning much refreshed. The others were waking and crept past the Sentinel one by one to use the rocks, before rolling the sleeping bags up and preparing to move out.
Blair stroked Jim's arm when he stirred and the tired man sank back into sleep with a sigh.
"We'll stay here today - Jim heard them go past at dawn. We laid a false trail before the rescue and they fell for it. We'll let them go a little further and then head back over the way we came. Jim figures that if we follow the lake we'll be able to get back to a ranger station. He's pretty sure we flew over one on our way here," Blair said softly, "And we'll be near the best food source if we have to go wild for a bit."
"Won't they be expecting that?" Rafe asked nervously and Blair shrugged with his eyebrows, earning himself a grin as morale got a little boost.
"They don't have our advantage - Jim's brain and my brawn," Blair suggested and Taggert groaned.
"We're dead, we are so dead," Brown faked terror and got himself a Blairface - eyes crossed, tongue stuck out, nose wrinkled. He also got a few grins for his trouble. Blair gestured to the packs they'd readied.
"Have some breakfast and get some more rest - we'll be moving well after sundown," Blair suggested, "There's trail mix in the pouch of my pack - pass it over would you?"
Joel dug around and came up with the requested food. He looked at Jim for a moment and then frowned at Blair.
"Is he ok?" Joel asked in a quiet voice and Blair nodded. He smiled down at the head that was nuzzled into his shoulder. The two men looked so natural together.
"He's just tired," Blair replied, "I woke up just before Simon did - Jim's senses have been on line all night. He's letting me take the watch now."
"That's why he doesn't wake when you talk - he knows you're on guard," Taggert marveled. Blair shrugged with his eyebrows and crammed a handful of trail mix into his mouth, sucking to soften it so his food wouldn't crunch in Jim's ear when he chewed. Taggert settled back onto his roll and ate another, now stale, sandwich.
"The cards are in Jim's pack," Blair suggested a few hours later - the first time anyone had spoken since breakfast. Simon grinned over at him as Rafe produced Jim's deck.
"Did you also save the chess set?" Simon teased and regretted his words when Blair shook his head sadly. Jim and Blair played chess regularly now. Pre dissertation mess the Teaching Assistant had only time for a game during semester breaks. Post dissertation mess had freed up a lot of time for Blair. They played a couple of times a week now - occasionally the same game would last more than a week. While Blair had been able to finish his doctorate - submitting the Closed Societies in Law Enforcement thesis he'd written at the same time as the Sentinel one - his reputation had taken a severe blow. He had thrown himself into the Academy completely, graduating early.
Finding himself only working one job - or rather, devoting more time to a job he'd worked for four years and only now getting paid for it - had left Blair plenty of time to explore the Shaman side of his nature, and also spend time with Jim. Not testing him or analyzing him, though he still worked on the Sentinel dis. at Jim's request. For once both men had the time to develop their friendship with each other - resulting in a deeper bond than ever before. The chess games had been a symbol of that. The chess set had been Blair's and it traveled everywhere with him - even on stakeouts.
Simon lost the first few hands of poker while he thought about this and what he could do to make things a little better.
Jim stirred later that afternoon and Blair retreated to the back of the cave to finish his sleep. The others moved the quiet poker game to the front of the cave and dealt Jim in. He grinned at the muttered comments about card sharks and their partners when he cleaned them out in five hands - they were playing with pebbles found in the back of the cave - and went to stretch his legs a little.
Their hunters came back at dusk and Jim went to full alert until he was sure they were safe. Not long afterwards he woke Blair, they all gathered their packs, made sure their occupancy of the cave was invisible and followed Jim out, along the ridge and down to the ruined cabin. He kept them in concealment for a few hours before he was satisfied that there was no one nearby.
"Should we take the boat?" Blair suggested, "It won't leave any tracks and it might be quicker than on land."
"If they come back though, they'll know exactly where we are," Simon argued. Blair bit his lip and looked around at the cabin.
"Besides, after they set fire to the cabin they sunk the boat," Jim told them. He was looking at the cabin too. The fire had burnt most of it away - but for some reason part of the veranda had survived.
"We could make a raft," Brown suggested, "The floor on the veranda there is intact. We could find a way to get it to the water. It should float, right?"
"I thought your first name was Henri," Rafe teased, "Not Huckleberry."
"It's a good idea though," Jim nodded with a grin, "We could move some rubble to cover what we take."
The others looked at the floor and then nodded. Taggert dropped his pack and the others added theirs in a pile and the five men swarmed over the remains of the cabin while Jim stood watch. At first Blair's constant near silent monologue was a bit annoying, but then the others realised he was grounding his Sentinel.
Luckily the floor supports had burnt away and with some effort the five men were able to pick up the floor in a piece and walk it down to the water. They waded in thigh deep, let go and watched the makeshift raft sink straight to the bottom as the fire-parched floorboards absorbed the water rapidly. Blair began to laugh, and he clapped Brown on the back.
"I guess your name is Henri after all!" he chortled, and Jim laughed up on the shore. Brown splashed his laughing friend and grinned sheepishly. The others laughed too and waded out. Rafe walked out onto the landing they'd moored the boat on and looked down at their sunken craft with a sigh.
"There's no way to get her up and patch the hole?" he asked Simon as the Captain came to stand beside him and peer into the moonlit water. Simon shook his head and sat down on the edge. Rafe stepped back a little uneasily.
"You know, whenever we were getting into the boat it always felt like the dock was tilted," he said nervously, "I could have sworn it dipped when you sat down Simon."
"You saying I'm so heavy I tilt the dock?" Simon scowled, and Blair gave a yelp of excitement. Before they could ask what was wrong he ran past Rafe and leapt into the water.
"Sandburg!" Jim yelled and hurried over. Blair surfaced for a second, took a deep breath and swum under the dock. Jim froze and extended his senses to track his Guide beneath the wood. After only a few seconds Blair popped up again and reached up to be pulled out of the water. Jim obliged with a scowl.
"Its on pontoons!" he blurted before anyone could yell at him for scaring them, "The first part - the narrow bit - is on pylons, but I remembered Molly telling me they needed to extend the dock for the plane!"
"So if we cut it loose we have our raft," Rafe finished and the others grinned.
"Eventually those losers are going to come back and check that we haven't headed back here. They'll notice part of the dock is missing," Jim pointed out and Blair shook his head.
"We'll leave a trail of burnt stuff and burn the narrow bit a little. If we fish up the floor and drop it back where the raft was we might be able to leave enough doubt behind to give us some lead time," he said rapidly. He was headed back to the cabin ruins and the others followed. They would have to work quickly to implement this plan.
They were lucky. By dawn the ruse was set and they were poling rapidly away. The fishing for the floor had yielded the boats oars and Joel had managed to knock down a few of the skinny saplings further along the lakeside, stripping the branches off to make poles for them to propel the raft. The branches were brought along too for camouflage. Jim had agreed that they should try to get a little further away in daylight before finding a place to hole up for the day. If they were going to move on the water they would be exposed and daylight travel was too risky.
They hid the raft in a tree that had fallen into the water, and then kept growing. Jim spent most of the time asleep again, leaning up against Blair as the Guide kept watch. The two men were slipping in and out of their alter egos as instinct kicked in.
By unspoken agreement their colleagues didn't remark the changes - after all it was those instincts that had saved their lives and would eventually get them back to safety. Simon worried he'd be short two detectives when they got back to civilization, but decided to cross that bridge when they came to it.
They moved out after dusk again, with Jim standing point on the raft to direct them in the dark. They spoke in low tones to each other, cracking jokes and arguing the merits of that sporting team or this new procedure at the PD. If not for the dire nature of their circumstances the men would have enjoyed themselves.
They looked pretty funny. The raft was draped with branches to disguise it during daylight hours. All of them were heavily unshaven and a little ripe. To avoid blisters and splinters they all wore a pair of socks on their hands - Blair's idea and a good one, they couldn't afford unnecessary injuries. The middle of the raft held the packs, tied down to avoid accidents, and Jim carried the rifle. If not for their clothes a casual observer might have mistaken them for a primitive war party.
The raft reached the mouth of the lake just after dawn and Jim guided them into a sheltered resting-place a little further down.
"I hear rapids ahead," he told the others as they made a cold meal from the cans he and Blair had packed, "We'll need daylight to get through them."
"So do we go today or wait?" Rafe asked, and Blair sighed.
"Today," he replied before Jim could, "We haven't heard anything from our friends out there - there's a good chance we've given them the slip."
"Today could be the day they check the cabin," Brown protested and Jim shrugged.
"Today could be the day they repair that inflatable boat I shot full of holes and come after us with the out board motor," Jim told them, "Blair's right - we should go today. We rest now and get moving in four hours time."
They settled down to sleep.
The river flowed slow and steady for a few miles. The men from Major Crimes were moving smoothly together now. Everyone had a pole or paddle to use and the raft was well balanced. They'd rigged panic straps on the raft - some more of the ropes that had tied the pontoon to the dock.
They'd decided the best way to get through the rapids was to let the water take them and just use the poles to push off the rocks. They'd have to listen to each other and keep a close eye out for trouble.
"Here it comes - the next bend," Jim warned and everyone got down and braced themselves as best they could. They could hear the rumble now as the water churned around the rocks. The flow of the river sped up a bit and Jim glanced back at Blair once. They were at opposite ends of the raft and the Sentinel wasn't too happy about that. Blair caught the look and nodded solemnly before renewing his grip on the pole he carried.
Then they were swept around the bend and instinct was all that would save them. The raft bucked and bounced in the rough current as they fended the rocks off and shouted warnings. The raft spun too, adding that problem to keeping themselves oriented and in one piece.
A particularly wicked bounce jarred Simon loose and he went over the edge with a cry. He barely had time to hit the water when Blair grabbed his arm and hung on with a grunt. The curly haired man was lying almost flat on the raft, all of Simon's weight supported on one hand. He'd twisted his foot beneath a panic strap - more by luck than planning - and that foot was supporting both their weights as Blair and Rafe struggled to pull Simon in before he could be beaten to death on the rocks. Blair was stretched tighter than a bowstring and each buck of the raft shuddered through his body.
Blair acted like a human ladder for Simon to crawl over while Rafe grabbed his boss and pulled. Once Simon was back aboard Rafe shoved a panic strap at him and grabbed for the pole he'd abandoned - unable to spend time on his friends until they were all out of danger. Simon and Blair both lay still in the middle of the raft as the final rocks screamed past and the raft was spat out into the wide river again, slowing as the current slowed. Joel Rafe and Brown headed for the riverbank - it was steep and rocky but they could moor to it - while Jim hurried to the two men in the middle.
"I'm ok, Jim," Simon said groggily as he sat up, "Just bruised. Sandburg was too quick for anything else."
Jim ran sensitive fingers over his friend anyway and nodded in relief. The bruises were nasty, especially around the arm where Blair had first grabbed him, but they weren't fatal or even serious. Jim turned to Blair and leant over him anxiously. Blair opened an eye and regarded Jim with a small grimace.
"Don't you go all mother hen on me, Jim," he warned the other man who snorted and ran his fingers over Blair gently. Blair was silent until Jim sat back and Simon shifted uneasily.
"You ok Sandburg?" Simon asked and Blair shook his head no.
"Dislocated shoulder, sprained wrist, torn ankle ligaments," Jim said softly. Blair nodded in agreement and smiled up at Simon.
"It's ok, though, cause Jim's going to pop the shoulder back in and strap the rest, aren't you Big Guy?" Blair said gently and Jim winced, then nodded. Moving quickly he braced against Blair with his foot and popped the joint back with a sickening crunch. Blair yelled and swore before collapsing back to the raft and trying to catch his breath. He lay almost still as Jim eased off his boot and strapped the ankle tightly before moving up to his wrist. When Jim was finished he slumped to the middle of the raft and hung his head.
"Thanks, Kid," Simon touched Blair's good shoulder and got a painful smile in return.
"Hey - it wouldn't be a Jim and Blair camping trip if one of us didn't end up with a sprained something," Blair joked and got a reluctant laugh for his efforts.
"Stop it," Jim protested, "It's not funny."
He was gripping his partner's uninjured hand tightly and frowning. Remembering their earlier conversation the others backed off a little - don't touch the Guide. Blair tugged at Jim's hand impatiently, freeing himself and sitting up slowly.
"You stop it - laughter is the best medicine. I can cite you the studies if you like," Blair said just as fiercely. The Sentinel backed down and Blair looked around.
"We're in the open here - lets find a place to stop for today and get some rest," he suggested and the others moved quickly to untie the raft. Jim took his place on point again while Simon sat with Blair. They'd both lost their poles in the rapids and Simon's bruises were stiffening up rapidly. Blair leaned against the pile of packs and tried to breathe slowly to control the pain.
They spent a day and a night tied up to an overhang to allow Simon and Blair some time to recover. They got Simon another pole and he helped steer the raft further down the river while Blair cursed silently his new status as burden to the others.
They reached the station Jim had seen three days after they'd traveled the rapids - and on the same day Molly was due to come get them. Jim carried Blair from the raft to the station and settled him gently on the ranger's bunk. Arrangements were made for medical help and safe travel the rest of the way to civilization.
Jim also started the ball rolling to get the extremists dug out of their little niche - though privately Simon thought they'd have packed up and hauled arse long ago.
The Sentinel was a little uneasy around others, though Blair did his best to soothe his worries. A chopper was coming for them and Blair didn't want Jim to freak out when his Guide was strapped down and carried away. In the end Blair took Simon and Joel aside and coached them on what to do when the chopper arrived to keep Jim calm. Blair's injuries had given him something else to focus on, thus putting the Guide back in his box. Unfortunately the same injuries had given the Sentinel something else to work on, making it difficult for Jim to push his instincts back down.
The rest of the Major Crimes gang was quite frankly looking forward to indoor plumbing, clean sheets and clean clothes. Blair made a game of it on the chopper, listing all the things he missed - pizza, TV, beer, toilet paper.
Brown came up with lockable doors, and Taggert volunteered electricity. Simon mentioned cigars and Rafe laughed and yelled dry-cleaning. They were all yelling now, coming up with sillier suggestions. Jim added one or two, but was mostly silent, clutching Blair's good hand and sitting close. He knew when the chopper landed Blair would be taken to hospital - which meant separation for a while. Both the Sentinel and the friend were uneasy at that reality.
Blair knew he was going to get yelled at, but if he was forced to eat one more hospital meal he was going to puke. He'd gathered quite a few looks as he hopped across the precinct lobby on his one crutch, but Jim had his wallet - confiscated to avoid just such an occurrence - and the taxi driver he'd talked into taking him to the precinct from the hospital was waiting outside to be paid. Rafe had brought him some sweats from his locker at the precinct when Blair complained of being cold. They were good enough to be seen in public, so that had removed the social more of wearing pajamas in public.
The lift dinged and Blair leaned off the wall, renewed his grip on the elbow crutch and hopped cheerfully out, across the hall and into Major Crimes. Jim, thankfully, was not at their desks and Blair started going through his drawers for his wallet. A short silence struck the bullpen as his colleagues stared at him.
"Hey, H have you seen my wallet?" Blair called as he searched one handed.
"Nope," Brown sounded stunned, "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for my wallet," Blair said reasonably, "The taxi is downstairs waiting to be paid and Jim confiscated my cash."
"You are going to get me in so much trouble," Brown groaned, "I'll go down and pay for it - Rafe make sure he sits down and behaves."
"Me?" Rafe protested, "Oh no - when Jim gets in he's going to go ballistic."
Brown was already in the lift, and just waved at his partner sweetly. Blair growled and sat in his chair, closing the drawer he'd been searching in and propping the crutch against the desk. He'd had surgery for his torn ligaments when they returned to Cascade - hence the hospital stay. His well-known dislike of hospitals had not endeared him to the nursing staff on the surgical ward, and he'd been able to secure an early discharge with no problems.
As a bribe for his sure-to-be-irate partner Blair started in on the paperwork that always seemed to pile up on his side of their double desks. Typing one handed was an old feat for him and he soon settled into a rhythm. Rafe brought him a sandwich and soda from the vending machines and everyone else did their work while maintaining an escape route for when Ellison arrived.
He and Simon were attending a follow up meeting on the compound where the four men from major Crimes had been held captive. The Feds had led the search and located the abandoned compound. The extremists were long gone, but had left behind a few clues. The search would continue and meanwhile the Rangers would keep watch.
Simon spotted Blair first - Jim was too preoccupied with his thoughts - and the Captain put on a burst of speed to get to his office before Jim realised his partner was there. Blair had his head down over a report, typing with one handed efficiency and otherwise keeping still. Jim dropped his jacket onto the back of his chair, finished the soda in Blair's can and tossed it in the bin before reaching for his own pile of reports. He froze in mid reach and met twinkling blue eyes and a cheeky grin.
"What are you doing here?" Jim growled. The grin didn't diminish and Blair shrugged his good shoulder.
"Typing reports - what does it look like?" was all he had time for. Jim grabbed the crutch, pulled the chair - which was luckily on casters - away from the desk and started wheeling his partner to the lift. The bullpen waited in silence for the noise that was to follow.
Sure enough the minute the doors closed the yelling started.
Brown got up and started the pool.
Taggert walked in with a plain wrapped package and put in his bid - how long would Ellison manage to keep Sandburg at the loft - and headed into Simon's office.
"You got it?" Simon eyed the package and Taggert nodded eagerly. He put it on Simon's table and sat down.
"I almost missed the guy - he was packing up to move to Florida for a while," Taggert replied, "But I was lucky and he had the perfect set for Darwin."
Taggert produced a Polaroid the carver had supplied him and Simon's face softened as he looked at it.
"Perfect," Simon nodded, "Poker night's tomorrow - we can give it to him then."
Taggert grinned and got up.
"You want me to add that to the pool?" he asked on his way out and Simon shook his head with a grin. Taggert nodded and closed the door behind himself.
Sure enough a resigned Jim led a hopping Blair into Simon's apartment that night. Brown quietly slipped the pool winnings to Simon who winked at Blair and patted his pocket meaningfully. Jim rolled his eyes and went to grab his friend a soda.
They all sat at Simon's table and started dealing snacks and bragging about how much they were planning to win this time - the usual friendly BS that accompanies a poker game.
"Or would you rather play chess Sandburg?" Simon asked a surprised Blair, and handed over the plain package. Blair's fingers trembled a little as he opened it one handed and he ran tender fingers over the smooth chessboard. It was made from wood - naturally - but unstained. The craftsman had used two different types of wood and laid them cross-grained to each other to create the traditional white and black squares. It was travel sized - a full board that could be folded in half and stored in Blair's backpack easily.
Blair opened the board and pulled the two bags that held the chess pieces in them out, before laying the board flat and delving into the light blue bag for the first pieces. His friends were silent as Blair reverently set up the board and then sat back to appreciate his gift.
The chessmen were again carved from two different wood types and unstained. The 'white' men were from a silvery type of wood and the 'black' pieces from a dark mahogany polished to near black.
The King and Queen were lion and lioness, the bishops were bears. The rooks were lyrebirds and the knights were hawks. The pieces that took Blair's breath away were the pawns. On the black side they were snarling panthers and on the white side they were howling wolves.
Overfull blue eyes met those of his friends and incoherent thanks followed by fervent hugs ensued.
"All right, enough of that," Simon growled and Blair grinned. For a moment his eyes unfocussed as he saw the bear swaying behind Simon, the lyre bird perched on Rafe's chair, the shaggy lion sprawled at Taggert's feet and the hawk that stood guard over Brown's jacket. Jim's panther rubbed Blair's legs and the wolf chuffed at him from Jim's side.
Blair settled back in his chair and stroked his gift lightly before accepting his cards and paying attention to the warriors and Sentinel before him.
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