Rating: PG for language

Category: AU (My Immortal Universe)

Disclaimer: Don't own em, just taking them out for a little emotional and physical torture.

Summary: Mackie's themefic wherein a tired, hurting Jim finds it impossible to do his job.

This is a little different for me, first person, present tense, and it takes place in my Immortal universe, though there are no Immortals in sight. Warning: This contains spoilers for TSbyBS, and the end of Immortal Phoenix, though things are not as bad as they seem in this story. If you don't want to know how Phoenix ends, do not read this!


By CarolROI

I was spoiled. I realize that now. My job in the Army was cushy, a bed of roses compared to this, my years at the PD, a romp in the park. Somehow, when I went into business for myself, being my own boss held a lot of appeal. I imagined working only when I wanted, spending weekends hip deep in a trout stream. I found out very quickly it doesn't work that way. When there are only two of you, delegating the work only goes so far, and a relief shift is nonexistent.

Which explains why I'm sitting in Blair's Wagoneer in the woods just north of Vancouver watching an abandoned cabin, wondering why I ever thought doing a few bounty-hunting jobs to supplement the regular PI stuff was a good idea. I consider asking my partner that question, but I don't want to wake him. I glance at him as I grab a tissue from the box on the dash and blow my nose. Did I mention I have the cold of the century too? Sandburg stirs at the noise, but doesn't wake, instead snuggling deeper into the layers of blankets he has wrapped around himself. At least he has finally been sleeping through the night, though right now I could do with a little conversation to keep myself awake.

Checking the luminous numbers on the face of my watch, I notice that in about fifty more minutes the old millenium will be gone, and the next thousand years will begin, despite Sandburg's protests that it doesn't officially begin until 2001. After the year we've had, we could use the fresh start. Yawning, I crack my window a little, hoping the cold air will clear the cobwebs from my brain, keep me alert for any sign of our bail jumper.

Blair moves in his makeshift nest, tucking the covers closer around him. I consider closing the window if he's really uncomfortable, but he remains oblivious, which I suppose is a good thing. Perhaps if he sleeps through the change of years, the moment won't be so painful.

Who am I kidding? I still hurt whenever I think of that awful day. There's still a big aching place in my soul, in the bond between myself and Sandburg, a place that had once been filled by the Champion and her Companion. I find myself slipping into another level of awareness, checking the bright, golden band that connects me to my guide. It's still there, as strong and steady as ever, perhaps a little brighter than it had been eight months ago when we were blindsided by the whole mess with Blair's dissertation. But missing from the spiritual cloth are the blue and green threads that symbolized Diandra and Megan.

Damn Alex Barnes! If she wasn't already dead... . I let the unfinished thought go with the breath I've been holding, forcibly unclenching my hands. Blair murmurs something low, pained, and nonsensical. Even asleep he's picking up on my ugly mood, and I try to think pleasant thoughts so as not to disturb him any further. He's been through enough, we both have. Try as I might, though, my mind keeps pulling me back to those awful weeks following the most horrific experience of our lives.

Blair had been numb at first, in shock. Who wouldn't be after having his heart figuratively ripped out of his chest, taking a big chunk of his soul with it? It wasn't until after the memorial service that it really hit him, that they were really and truly gone. It was then he had reached out to me, and for once in my life, I knew the right thing to say, the right thing to do. I couldn't afford to be afraid anymore as it hit me for the first time he needed me as much as I need him. So I let him cry and scream and work through all his anger, and when he was done, I did the thing I should have done weeks before. I resigned from the PD and devoted myself to us, to working on the Sentinel/Guide thing, to making a mutual decision about where we were heading with the rest of our lives. Somehow, though, I hadn't pictured this exact scenario when we had decided to open Champion Investigations.

The tickle that s been sitting at the back of my throat for several minutes turns into a hacking cough. Sandburg shoots out of the blankets as if he's been bit, digging automatically for the thermos between his legs. He pours me some kind of herbal tea he's been forcing down me all day, and I accept it with a nod of thanks, wrapping my fingers around the warm cup, watching the steam rise in the cold air. I swallow the stuff, the bitterness disguised with a liberal dose of honey, reflecting on the fact that I don't protest nearly as much as I used to at his native remedies. Somehow I no longer feel the need to question his motives. If he insists on dosing me with something that tastes like the bottom of the Everglades, I know it's because he genuinely thinks it'll help.

A voice drifts out from the cocoon. "What time is it, man?"

I glance at my watch again. "Five minutes 'til midnight." He's silent for a moment then I hear a small sigh escape his lips.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this, Jim." I know exactly what he means. "I was going through some of Dee's papers, and found a reservation she'd made last January, when we thought we had all the time in the world." I reach over and squeeze his shoulder through the layers of fabric as he continues. "We were supposed to be in the Fiji Islands, the four of us, ringing in the New Year together."

"I'm sorry, Chief," I say for probably the billionth time since it happened.

"Not your fault, Jim. Not anyone's fault but Alex's." He turns his face toward the side window ostensibly staring out into the night, but I know better. The glass is completely fogged over and I can feel his thoughts turn inward, just as mine have been doing for the past hour.

I squeeze his shoulder again. "It's not your fault either. Alex played us, played all of us. She had a death wish from the start."

His voice is quiet as he answers me. "I know, Jim, I know. And when you think about it, she failed. We're both still alive; she didn't take us down with her."

He doesn't continue, but I know what he's thinking. He's thinking maybe it would be better if she had, at least then we would all be together on the spirit plane. Some nights I would have to agree with him, but this isn't one of them. I tug at a curl poking out from under his hat. "Everything happens for a reason, Blair. Dee believed that. If we were meant to be with them, we would be."

He nods as my watch beeps. "Happy New Year, Chief."

"Happy New Year, Jim," he answers, but there is no joy in his voice.

"Things will get better, I promise."

Sandburg turns toward me, the hint of a smile on his lips. "They have been, they have been, but tonight I'm giving myself permission to be sad for a little while, you know? It wouldn't feel right to be anything else." Wiping some of the condensation off the window, he changes the subject. "Any sign of our fugitive from justice?"

I shake my head. "Not a thing."

"Then why don't you try and get some rest. I'll keep watch for a while."

I smile my thanks at him and stretch out as best I can. He pokes me as I start to close my eyes.

"Get in the back and lie down, man, or you'll be adding a stiff neck and sore back to your cold."

"Yes, mom." He thumps me in the arm as I crawl over the seat and into the sleeping bag we keep in the back for just such a purpose. It doesn't take me long to fall asleep.

"Jim, Jim, man, wake up. Someone just drove up to the cabin." Sandburg follows this announcement by shaking me.

"I'm awake, I'm awake." Opening my eyes, I sit up. That was a mistake. While I was asleep, someone opened a bowling alley in my head and is now throwing strikes with the back of my eyes as the pins. I make a noise.

"Headache?" Blair asks. At my glare, he offers this advice, "Dial it back, man."

Swallowing past the jagged shards of glass now lining my throat, I do as he tells me, then climb back into the front seat of the Jeep, turning my attention on the small cabin. A faint light can been seen through the windows. Extending my hearing, I pick up the noise of someone moving about, the sound of a match being struck and the crackle of kindling catching fire. "Someone's there all right. I can't see in from here; I'm gonna go for a closer look."

Blair starts to untangle himself from his blankets. "I'll go with you."

I shake my head and regret it immediately as the bowler upstairs picks up a spare. I cover well, though. "I'm not going to try anything. I just want to get an angle where I can look in the window. No sense in both of us freezing. I'll only be a minute," I promise.

He frowns at me, then nods. Getting out of the truck, I head through the trees slowly, the cold wind cutting through my heavy parka. The snow is deep here, and it hinders my progress. I figure I must be running a fever by now; I can feel sweat trickling down my forehead. For a few seconds I consider going back to the truck, then decide against it. Just one look inside to ID our fugitive is all I need, then once morning comes, we collar the perp and head back across the border. To my left I spy a small frozen pond, the ice swept clean by the wind. If I walk out on the surface a little way, my line of sight should be even with the cabin's window. The sooner I get this over with, the sooner I can get out of the elements.

I test the ice first, of course. Be pretty embarrassing if I took a step out onto it and find myself ankle deep in cold water. It supports my weight with no sign of cracking, so I work my way out about 20 feet, and turn to face the house. Damn, I really feel like shit. Blinking sweat and wind-caused tears from my eyes, I focus in. There's a curtain in the way. I take one big step to my left, and plunge through the ice. Frigid water closes over my head, and I panic, breathing in a mouthful of H2O.

Kicking hard with my legs, my head breaks the surface as I cough and sputter. I grab for the edge of the ice only to have it crumble under my hands. I think I'm in trouble. My waterlogged clothes start to pull me down and I go under once more, struggling to shed my heavy jacket. I do so, but the cold saps my energy and I fight to rise again. Air rushes into my lungs, and I tread water, trying to gather enough strength to yell for Sandburg, even though I know he's too far away and safe inside a closed car to hear me.


I don't even question how he knew I was in trouble. Just one of the benefits of having a Guide, I guess. "Over here!" I manage to yell before my body ignores my commands and I sink again. This time I let myself go all the way to the bottom, forcing my nerveless legs to push off it, to give me a boost up. My head surfaces and he's there in front of me, sprawled on his belly on the ice, stretching something out to me. Lifting my arm out of the water is too big an effort for my frozen body.

"Damn it, Jim! Don't do this to me! Grab the staff!"

I'm so tired, so fucking cold.

"Jim! You gotta help me here! Grab on!"

I lift my hand out of the water and try to close my fingers on the pole. They're so numb I can't feel it and they slide off.

I hear the terror in his voice. "Damn you, Jim! Don't you do this to me! Don't you leave me too!"

Somehow I find the strength to reach out again, and this time I manage to hold on. Blair pulls me to him, grabbing my shirt as I reach him, hauling me onto the ice with no help from me. He forces me to crawl with him toward the shore, even though all I want to do is lay my head down and sleep. Finally we are off the ice, both of us collapsing in the snow. My eyes begin to close, and suddenly Blair is shaking me, slapping my face, yelling at me to stay awake, to get up.

Dragging me to my feet, he throws my arm over his shoulders and we head for the Wagoneer. Or at least he does. My frozen legs aren't listening to my brain and refuse to move. Blair swears in some foreign language, and I feel myself being lifted in a fireman's carry. He staggers for a moment under my weight, muttering something about too many visits to Wonderburger, then begins to walk. Hanging upside down is driving the mad bowler in my head nuts, and I barely have time to realize we're heading in the wrong direction before he rolls a turkey, and everything goes black.

I awake to indescribable agony. It's as if a thousand needles are stabbing into every inch of my body at once. Muscle spasms shake me uncontrollably and I can hear my teeth chattering. There is a prickly furnace pressed against my back, though it does little to warm the deathly cold inside me. My eyes stubbornly refuse to open more than the barest of slits, and all I can see is a dancing kaleidoscope of light and shadow. I blink, and the world coalesces slowly. I can see a face, short, dark hair framing delicate features, deep violet eyes peering into mine. I realize this is not Blair, but before I can act on this thought, I descend into darkness again.

Consciousness is not quite so unbearable the second time I wake. The pins and needles are gone, and all that's left of the spasms is a deep ache in every muscle of my body. The blast oven is still there next to me, and I turn my head slowly to see what it is.

Sandburg's face swims into view. "Hey, Jim, you're awake," he whispers, considerate of my sensitive ears. I realize his body heat is the furnace I feel and I have the sneaking suspicion that underneath the blankets covering us, we are not wearing any clothes. He guesses my thoughts. "Don't worry, man, I won't tell anyone we got naked together."

I groan and turn my head to the other side, blinking a couple times as I recognize our whereabouts as the interior of a cabin, probably the one our escapee from justice was using, since it is the only dwelling in the vicinity. It's small and spartan, a fireplace with a roaring fire takes up one wall, the door is opposite it, and the cot Sandburg and I are sharing takes up a third wall. A table sits in the center of the room, four straight backed chairs around it. One of the chairs is occupied by a petite woman who rises and crosses to the fireplace, taking a kettle off a hook over the flames, then pouring the hot liquid into an earthenware mug.

She moves to the side of the bed, holding the drink and gazing down at me expectantly. Sandburg moves behind me, helping me sit up against the rough pillows, tucking a scratchy wool blanket around my shoulders. He crawls over me to sit on the edge of the pallet, and I can see his skin is covered in angry red hives from where it's come in contact with the blanket. "Sorry, Chief," I murmur, wincing in sympathy.

"It's okay, Jim. A small price to pay." He starts to scratch, then gives me a grin. "I know, I know, don't scratch." The woman hands the mug to him, and he gives it to me, or rather, he holds my hands around it, helping me raise it to my lips. The dip in the pond and my cold have knocked out my olfactory sense, and I don't realize it's one of Blair's vile concoctions until I've taken a large mouthful. I manage to swallow it with a grim smile, feeling it working its magic on my raw throat.

He makes me take a couple more sips, then sets the mug on the wooden box that serves as a night table. Getting up, he picks up his clothes from one of the chairs and dresses before sitting back down next to me again. His hand goes to my forehead, and he tsk tsks. "You have a fever."

Turning his attention to the woman, who had returned to her seat after delivering the herbal drink, Blair asks, "Do you have any aspirin?" She nods shyly and goes to a cabinet built into the wall, returning with a bottle she hands to Blair. "Oh, hey, Jim. I'm being rude. Esme Cooper, Jim Ellison. Jim, Esme." So he did find our bail-jumper. Figures he would charm her into helping him. She gives me a little wave, but doesn't say a word, her eyes wide behind her glasses.

He shakes two tablets into his hand and makes me take them. I wash them down with the remains of the tea and give the cup back to him rather unsteadily. Exhaustion is creeping up on me, and I can barely keep my eyes open. He helps me lie down a little bit, not completely flat to aid my breathing, then he makes sure the blankets cover me snugly. I poke my hand out and take hold of his, needing suddenly to know that this is real, that he is real, and not some oxygen deprived dream of a drowning sentinel. The physical connection reaffirms our spiritual bond, and I drift off to sleep knowing he will watch over me.

The sense of something missing draws me out of my fitful rest. That, and a vicious round of coughing. Someone holds a cup to my lips once the spasms in my chest have stopped, and I find myself swallowing more of the nasty tea. I lean back against the pillow, then realize I can't hear Blair's heartbeat. For the first time since I woke, I open my eyes, wincing at the light, even though it is dim by normal standards. "Chief?" The word is a cracked whisper.

"He'll be back soon." Her voice is low and musical, and I wonder if she's speaking quietly because she heard my partner do it or if that is her natural voice. Either way, it's nice. I close my eyes against the light and feel her lay a cool, damp cloth across them.

"Blair just went to bring his truck closer to the cabin. He said he has dry clothes for you and more medicine." I can hear the curiosity in her tone, but I don't have the strength to respond to her unasked questions.

The door opens and closes as Blair enters amid a blast of frigid air and a swirl of snow. Esme rises from the edge of the cot, and I hear her tell Blair I am awake.

Another fit of coughing grips me. When it finally ends, Blair is next to me, poking and prodding, making me stick out my tongue as he peers at my throat, pressing his ear to my chest and telling me to breathe deeply. He doesn't need sentinel hearing to notice the wheezing rattle in my lungs. I pull the cloth away from my eyes and stare at him.

He is chewing on his thumb, his expression pensive. Absently he feels my forehead again. "Fever hasn't gone down," he says more to himself than me.

"What's the diagnosis, doc?" I croak, giving him a smile to let him know I trust whatever decision he is about to make.

He flashes me a quick grin. "Let's hope whatever's going on in your lungs is a reaction to the pond water you breathed in and not the onset of pneumonia. The dirty water combined with your cold is most likely turning into a nasty case of bronchitis. How does your head feel?"

"Like it's about to explode and shoot my eyeballs across the room."

"Whoa, that's a bit over dramatic, but it sounds like sinus congestion to me. And lucky for you, I packed for every contingency. But first, let's get you into some warm clothes." Unzipping the carryall at his feet Blair pulls out sweats, thick socks, and bless his little Boy Scout heart, thermal underwear.

Esme busies herself on the other side of the room as Blair helps me dress. I'm disgusted to find I'm weak as a newborn foal, my arms and legs going every direction but the one I want them to. The effort exhausts me, and sweat is pouring down my face as I finally sink back onto the bed.

Blair tucks me in, then heads for the table and the first aid kit/herbal remedy case he made out of a large tackle box. I watch through drooping eyelids as he begins to combine ingredients, realizing I'm in for a long night of tea drinking. With a yawn I manage to keep from becoming a cough, I slip into a feverish sleep.

I'm back in the jungle. The heat surprises me, though I don't know why that should be. I've been here many times before and it's always the same. A low growl from my spirit guide greets me, and I follow as he leaps from the low hanging branch where he was reclining and pads off through the foliage. I smile to myself, remembering a time when I would have resisted his call, wanting to know the wheres and whys and how comes before I ventured forth. Now I simply wind my way after him

The jaguar leads me to a secluded glade, a place where a small waterfall cascades into an inviting pool. The cat crouches at the edge to drink, and I drop to my knees beside him and do the same. The taste is crisp and cool, and I suspect fed by an underground spring. Giving into temptation, I strip off my fatigues and dive into the water, swimming in lazy circles, finally just floating, watching the wildlife that abounds here.

My spirit guide has spurned the water in favor of a branch in the shade. The flapping of strong wings catches my attention and I see a glossy black raven come to perch on a tree limb. It caws raucously then begins preening. A few moments later, a wolf slinks out of the bushes, not the great silver beast I've come to recognize as Sandburg, but a black wolf with a thick ruff and soulful dark eyes. He laps at the water, his eyes on me. Big as he is, he's still growing; he has the big feet and gangly limbs of an adolescent. Having drunk his fill, the wolf plops himself underneath the tree where the raven is sitting, his pink tongue lolling.

I wonder about these new creatures, trying to figure out their meaning. Before I've gotten very far, the underbrush rustles, and the black mare appears. She pauses at the edge of the clearing, one hoof raised, ears swiveling, nostrils flaring. Evidently our motley group passes her inspection, as she comes to the pool's edge to drink, lowering her great head slowly, her blue eyes on me.

The scream of an osprey diverts my attention for a moment, and I watch the black-and-white hunter dive toward me, pulling out of her stoop just in time to avoid hitting me. I can feel the draft from her powerful wings as she lifts skyward, circling the glade once to land next to the raven. I feel like Alice--curiouser and curiouser.

Something enters the water behind me with a faint splash. I turn, but the pool is perfectly calm and silent for several long seconds. Then a familiar head breaks the surface, long dark hair slicked back by the water, blue eyes sparkling, a welcoming smile on her face. "Hello, Jim."

For a moment I'm speechless, then I manage to stutter, "You're dead."

Tossing her head back, she laughs, the same throaty chuckle Blair had once confided to me he found incredibly sexy. "Am I?" she finally answers me. "You're here. Are you dead?" She swims a circle around me, and I feel like I'm being sized up, being judged worthy.

"If you're not dead, then... " I don't know how to finish my sentence.

"You know I can't tell you." She laughs again. "That's not the nature of this place. There are no cut and dried answers here, Jim. You should know that by now. It's all a matter of interpretation. Though I can give you a hint as to the answers you seek. Would you like a clue?"

I feel frustration building inside me. Now I remember why I found her so infuriating. I growl her name. "Diandra... "

"We nest with the raven and run with the wolf." Her expression is perfectly somber for a moment, then she snickers. "They want you to be so damn formal here, don't you think?"

"That's it? That's my clue?"

"Yep." She backstrokes away from me.

"Can I buy a vowel?" I ask for Sandburg's sake.

"Sorry, but no. One riddle is all you get. Oh, but as with all animals, we are creatures of habit. Nice seeing you again, Sentinel." She slides beneath the surface of the water, then explodes upwards, showering me with spray, shifting form in mid-air so that it is the mare who lands on the shore. She trots into the jungle without a backward glance, the wolf at her heels, the raven and the osprey both taking flight.

As quickly as they had come, they are gone, and I am alone once again with the jaguar.

Time is now divided into two distinct parts, the time I'm lost in fever-induced dreams, and the time I'm vaguely aware of the real world. Those memories are of drinking nasty liquids, and alternately shivering and sweating. I can't remember the last time I have been so sick.

The dreams are unpleasant too, mostly of the jungle, of fire, and of danger realized too late. Unfortunately, I can't blame those on my illness. They are the standard fare of my nightmares.

Through it all, I can sense Blair close to me. Some whispered words, the touch of a hand, the cool comfort of a wet cloth on my skin all speak to me of his presence. His name is the first word on my tongue when I am finally lucid and able to keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds.

"Blair's asleep," Esme answers me.

Turning my head to the side, I spy a curly-haired lump cocooned in a sleeping bag in front of the fire. Using my hearing I reassure myself that he is okay, then I focus my attention on our hostess. Esmeralda Cooper is a small woman in her mid-twenties, with short, dark hair and vibrant eyes she hides behind heavy glasses. According to the information we received from the bailbondsman, she was up on embezzlement charges, accused of having stolen twenty million from her employer. It occurs to me that if I had that much money, I would not be holed up in a relative's ratty cabin in Canada. I smile to myself. Over the years, I find I have begun to think like Sandburg, who I know, without having to ask him, believes she is innocent.

"Jim, you okay? You looked like you were a million miles away." Her hand is cool against my cheek. "Your fever's gone down." She holds a mug out to me, steadying it as I take a drink. For once it's water. "Blair said I should make sure you drink plenty of fluids if you woke up." She sets the cup down and faces me again. "Wish I had a friend like him. He was up for almost 24 hours straight taking care of you."

Twenty-four hours? "What day is it?"

She looks at a watch on her wrist. "It's January second, and 4 AM, in case you're wondering. He wanted to get you to a hospital as soon as you warmed up, but it started snowing really heavily and he didn't want to risk getting stuck with you in such bad shape." Her next question comes from left field. "Is Blair part Native American?"

"Uh, no, I don't think so," I stammer. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh, I woke up one time when you were really out of it. Blair was kneeling beside the bed, his hands out over you like this," she demonstrates by holding her hands palm down about two inches from my chest, "and chanting. In the light from the fire it was kind of spooky, that's all, and reminded me of those documentary things on medicine men."

My brow furrows and I chew my lip. What have you been up to, Chief? I know you've been researching the Shaman thing, but healing magic? I can see a long talk in our future. I change the subject, not wanting to get into that deep a discussion with her. "Did Blair tell you why we were here?"

Giving a little sigh, she nods. "He told me you were sent to bring me back to Cascade. I planned to come back for the trial, honest, it's just that I'm afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"I didn't steal that money."

I sigh. I knew this was coming. "Ms. Cooper... "

"I know, I know, Blair told me your only responsibility is to bring me back and turn me over to the court. But he also told me you were private investigators, that you help people in trouble."

I don't know why I bother to protest, but I make a token effort. "Yes, we do, but usually not embezzlers."

She sits up straighter in the chair, making an indignant noise. "I haven't been convicted; I'm an alleged embezzler. And Blair already promised." Her violet eyes fill up with tears. "He said you would help me."

Chief, you are so dead. I glare at his back, but I knew I was licked the moment we got the call about the case. There is something about females in trouble and Sandburg. They can spot him a mile away. Maybe it's some kind of pheromone--eau de gullible. I would love to research this further with Esme, but a yawn overtakes me. I drift off to sleep, murmuring something along the lines of "Whatever... "

The next time I awaken, I feel much better. Until I start coughing and can't stop. In the short recess between my last cough and my next one, a cup is pressed to my lips, and I can taste honey, lemon, and something else with a nasty edge to it going down. Whatever it is, it works. The tickle in my throat fades, and I breathe deeply, croaking out a "Thanks," as I meet my guide's eyes.

Once again, I get a hand on the forehead. Not that there's anything wrong with Sandburg's hand, but I enjoyed it more when it was Esme's. I glance around the room to find her now curled up where Blair had been before as he says something about my fever going down. "Hmm, yeah," I answer him. "I feel better."

He grins at me. "Good, because I'm hoping we can get out of here today. Not that this place doesn't have its charm, but it's not safe."

I frown. I'm missing something here. "Fill me in, Chief."

He lowers his voice a little. "We aren't the only people looking for Esme. She didn't steal that money, you know." Sighing, I nod, and he continues. "Her boyfriend, Frank, who was a partner in the business she worked for, stole it and set her up to take the blame. George, that's the other partner, thinks she was in on it, and threatened her if she didn't tell him where Frank went with the money. Of course she doesn't know, and George knows some not so nice people, so she ran. Only problem is, it didn't take much for us to find her, and I'm guessing George is smart enough to check with her relatives too, which will lead him straight to here."

There's a hole in this explanation somewhere. "Maybe this is all a setup. Maybe Frank left Esme behind to take the heat off of him, and she'll join him later."

Blair gives me his "Jim, you are incredibly dense" look. "Jim, man, if Esme was your girlfriend, would you have left her in Cascade to take the heat, when she could be lying next to you on a beach somewhere in nothing but a bikini?"

"Chief, I'm not the person to ask about that. I can't even remember the last time I had a date." As soon as the words are out of my mouth, though, I do remember. It was a double date, Blair and Dee and myself and Megan. It ended up that way quite a few Friday nights, not because Connor and I had any interest in each other, but because Blair and Dee felt sorry we were sitting at home alone while they went out and had fun. It was a guilt date. We had gone dancing, because that was what Blair and Dee had planned, and even though I would never admit it to Sandburg, I'd had a good time. The memory of Connor laughing in my arms is suddenly so sharp and intense that I can smell her scent--perfume, sweat, and the stuff she uses to clean her gun. I feel like I've just ripped a Band-Aid off a wound, taking the scab with it, watching in fascination as it begins to bleed.

"Jim, Jim, you okay?"

I look up at him, blinking away anything he might interpret as tears, and nod. "Yeah, I'm fine, just... remembering." I see the light go on in Blair's eyes, and a look of incredible sadness passes over his face. I'm trying to find something comforting to say to him, when a noise in the distance catches my ear. "Blair, does this George guy know how to use a snowmobile?"

Esme sits up abruptly in the sleeping bag. "Oh, my god, yes! He's nuts about the things, has two or three of them. Why, what are you thinking?"

I meet Blair's steady gaze. "I'm thinking we need to get out of here. Can we get the truck out?"

My partner nods. "Yes, but that won't do us much good. They have to be using the road to approach the cabin; the trees are too thick here for them to get off the track. If we try to drive out, we'll run right into them, and there's no way we can out run them."

Esme has caught the gist of our conversation, and is getting her boots on. "There's a ranger's station just over the ridge. If we can get there... "

I follow her line of thinking. "Then we'll be safe. Sandburg, you take Ms. Cooper and head for the station. I'll hold them off here."

Blair pauses in what he's doing, one boot on, the other held in his hand. "Man, you must still be delirious. Jim, we're in Canada. IE, your gun is safely locked up at home in Cascade. What are you going to use to hold them off with? We have no firearms, unless there's one here?" He directs his question to Esme.

She shakes her head. "No, but I do have a radio."

He points a finger at her. "Get on the horn to the rangers, let them know what's going on, tell them we're heading their way." He finishes getting dressed, while Esme works the radio.

To my dismay, Sandburg has to help me get dressed. Just sitting up makes me so dizzy I nearly pass out. "Just leave me here," I tell him.

"Nope, no can do." He finishes lacing my boots and helps me into his heavy coat, since mine is still at the bottom of the pond. I start to protest, but he will have none of it, and I realize he is probably wearing five layers of clothing already.

Throwing my arm over his shoulder, Blair heaves me off the bed, and we weave toward the door. Esme's already there, shrugging into what I recognize as Blair's backpack. He hands me off to her for a moment as he slips a strap over his head, then reaches back over his shoulder to adjust the leather scabbard that holds the two halves of his staff. He's dragged that damn thing around with him everywhere and never used it. I don't see what use it's going to be now, but I wisely keep my comments to myself, wishing fervently for a gun.

Blair takes over my support from Esme, and we head out of the cabin. The weather's actually fairly nice. Cold, but the sun is shining brightly, the glare on the snow blinding. Blair reminds me to turn it down, and I do as he says. We make slow progress toward the ridge. The snow is deep and I can barely keep myself upright, let alone walk in the stuff, even with both their help. The sound of the snowmobiles keeps getting closer, until it's loud enough for Blair and Esme to hear. The silence when the motors are cut off is startling.

"They're at the cabin," I tell them.

Blair chews his lip, his eyes searching the tree line for something. "Then it won't be long before they're on our trail." He looks me in the face. "How many are there?"

Closing my eyes, I concentrate with an effort. Damn illness is making it hard to stay focused. "Three, I think," I finally answer. I grab hold of his shoulders. "Blair, take Esme and go on ahead. I'm only going to slow you down."

Much to my surprise, Sandburg gives me a very cheeky grin. "I don't think we need to make you into a martyr just yet." Getting a firm grip on me, he heads into the trees. After about five minutes, we come to a small stand of evergreens. This is apparently what he was looking for as he leads us into the clearing. Leaning me against a tree trunk, Blair and Esme criss-cross the area, leaving multiple trails going into and out of the thicket.

When Blair is finally satisfied with what they've done, they return to me. Once again, he helps me walk, only this time it's not far, just to a huge fir whose low hanging branches drag on the ground. "Both of you, in there," he commands, pointing. I crawl underneath the limbs and lie on my stomach in the snow, quickly realizing it's an ideal hiding place. Esme follows in a moment, after Blair removes something from the pack she's carrying. He sticks whatever it is in his pocket, then stamps another false trail over the marks we made sliding under the tree.

That task complete, Sandburg walks into the center of the clearing and draws his staff, twisting the two ends together until they lock into place with a snap. He drops the pole on the ground, the snow deep enough that it vanishes from sight. Walking over to one of the trees, he grabs a limb and hauls himself up until he's hidden among the branches. I watch as his hat flutters down to rest at the base of the tree. What in the hell are you up to, Blair, I wonder.

Now comes the hard part: waiting. I can hear the three men following our trail, but it will be a couple minutes before they reach us. Peering out between the branches, I can barely see my partner. He's crouched on a limb about ten feet up the tree, and his heart is pounding. I smile as I pick up his whispered words. "Don't look down, man, don't look down."

"Hey! Over here!" Three men dressed in snowmobile suits and carrying handguns enter the clearing. They come to a standstill at the sight of the maze of tracks.

"What in the hell is this?" one of them asks.

"A pitiful attempt to fool us," the one who appears to be the leader says. This must be George. "Esme! Come out and we won't hurt you!"

I glance at her to find she has her hands over her ears and her eyes squeezed shut. Her heart is racing, but she makes no sound.

One of the men spies Blair's hat. Walking over to the tree, he bends to pick it up. A bone-chilling cry issuing from his lips, Sandburg drops from his hiding place, landing feet-first on the man's back, knocking him into the tree trunk. His head impacts the wood with a loud thunk, and he is down for the count. Two shots ring out as George and his friend fire in Blair's direction, but my partner is no longer there. He is diving forward in a somersault, rolling to his feet with his staff clasped in both hands. He sweeps George's feet out from under him, sending him sprawling, his gun flying from his grasp to land in a snow bank. The opposite end of Blair's staff strikes the third man's arm, forcing his weapon up. Sandburg follows through with a back roundhouse kick to the head, and in less than thirty seconds, he is the only one left standing.

I am... speechless.

George makes the mistake of trying to go for his gun. The end of Blair's staff slams into his chest. "Uh-uh. Don't even think about it. On your stomach, hands behind your back." The man complies, and I now realize what Blair had retrieved from his backpack. He wraps the zip-tie around the man's wrists and tightens it, then does the same for the other two men. Collecting their weapons from where they had fallen, he finally turns toward our hiding place. "You can come out now."

Esme scoots out from under the branches, dashes across the clearing, and throws her arms around Blair. "Oh my gosh, you saved me! I can't believe it! That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!"

I crawl out into the open, thinking the same thing. I have seriously underestimated my partner. I knew he had spent a great deal of time training with Dee, but I... I don't know what I had thought he was learning. I'd watched them work once, and at the time, I suspected it was a show put on for my benefit. Now I know differently. I never doubted his abilities as my partner, or his willingness to protect me. I just never suspected he was so... proficient at it.

Disentangling himself from Esme, Sandburg comes over to give me a hand up from the snow. "Come on, Jim, let's get these guys back to the cabin, and hopefully the rangers should be along soon."

I nod at him. "I can hear a helicopter. Hopefully that's them." He gives me his staff, and leaning on that and Esme's shoulder, I make it back to the cabin. Blair brings up the rear with our three prisoners.

Several hours later the local authorities have come and gone, taking George and his friends with them. Despite my desire to get headed back to Cascade, Sandburg has decided that I'm not up to the long drive after my earlier exertions. I secretly agree with him, but I argue because he expects it. Now I'm back in bed, and he's in the chair beside me, holding out a cup of soup. Esme is curled up in blankets on the floor, finally able to sleep now that George is in custody.

Blair notes my interest in her sleeping form as I take the mug from him. "You know it's not over yet."

"Hmm?" I manage around a mouthful of broth.

"For Esme. It's not over yet. She still has to stand trial for embezzlement. Unless Frank suddenly shows up." He peers at me over his own cup.

"What? You think we should go looking for him?"

He grins at me. "There's that psychic link between us. You read my mind."

"Chief... " But it's only a token protest. I know that with a minimum of arm-twisting he will convince me to go along with him.

His talk of psychic bonds reminds me of the dream I had during my fever. I debate telling him about it, but decide against it. I mean, I don't know if it was really a spirit vision, or just a feverish hallucination. What's the sense in getting his hopes up only to break his heart again if it isn't true? I take another drink, my eyes on him. He is watching Esme sleep. It's obvious she's developed quite a crush on him after this afternoon's heroics, and it looks like it's returned. No, I decide, I'm gonna keep Dee's cryptic words to myself for now, do a little investigating on the sly. If--no, when--I find out something concrete, I'll let him know.

But right now I'm just content to enjoy the feeling that for once all is right in the world. Reaching over, I give his forearm a squeeze. He raises an eyebrow at me. "What's that for?" he asks.

I give him a smile. "Just my way of saying thanks for saving my ass again, Chief."

Blair grins right back at me, his eyes shining in the firelight. "I think I'm gonna like the Jim Ellison of the new millenium."

"Yeah, well, don't get used to it," I tell him. He lightly punches my arm, laughing. Closing my eyes, I fall asleep to that wonderful sound.


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