DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Rock and a Hard Place


Prologue: Graduation

"No, man. Thanks, but no," Blair said with a large smile and a small pat on his partner's arm.

Ellison protested. "But you can't just graduate like that..."

"Like what? Like plain? Why not?"

"'Cause you know us, Chief. This isn't just a big deal for you, it's a big deal for the whole department." Jim followed his friend toward the kitchen, where the younger man was laying out breakfast. "Simon wants to do it."

At that Blair stopped and pinned his partner with a glare.

"Okay, I want to do it," Jim conceded, layering his scrambled eggs with salt, pepper, and bacon. "I want people to know that you're a part of our team. You're one of us."

"But getting my gold shield in front of everyone just isn't the way I want it done." Taking his seat across from his friend and roommate, Blair rested his elbows on the table and picked at his food. He didn't want to have to explain in order to get his friend to agree. After everything they'd been through, Sandburg thought his partner would be able to just take him at his word.

His roommate was poking at the eggs on the plate, not eating, and not seeming to care. Seeing Blair that way didn't sit well with Jim. After the hell of the past week, he'd thought that most of their big issues were behind them. But this seemed to be escalating rather well. He gave a heavy sigh, tensed momentarily, then tried to sound calm. "How DO you want it done?"

Blair pushed his plate away, then the chair, and stood up. "Doesn't matter. Do whatever."

Jim swallowed his food, took a sip of his coffee, and then breathed deeply. "Blair?"

There was a sudden genuine concern in his friend's voice, replacing the usual brusque tones Ellison used when he was upset. Blair hoped the conversation was under control. "Jim, man. It's not so easy to explain. I don't want to upset anyone, so you just do what you planned."

Jim watched his friend pacing the kitchen. "But you just told me you don't want that. What's going on?" There was silence for a moment.

"I don't want -- " Sandburg stopped the sentence, leaning against the counter and staring at the floor. He knew it shouldn't be about what he wanted. A lot of people had gone to a lot of trouble for him, and he should be polite and consider their feelings. He was really truly grateful that they wanted to celebrate his achievements. But it wasn't what he wanted. After all his graduations, he wanted this one to be different. He wanted this one to be normal.

"You don't want, but you do want, but we want, but we don't want..." Ellison shook his head. "Make up my mind, Chief. Do we want something or do you want something or are we just gonna call the whole thing off?" He chuckled at the rapid succession of words, knowing it sounded like a record. "You gotta talk to me."

Blair chuckled at that. "Talk to you. Okay. Look." He stood at the cooking island, hands braced against the countertop. "I've been to enough graduations where I was singled out for one reason or another. Graduating at the age of 15 was hard enough, but you try finding a cap and gown in 32 Extra Short." Blair saw his friend give him a half-smile. "Yeah, well try not getting your head kicked in when somebody's dad finds out his straight-A child isn't getting his scholarship because a 15 year old beat him out of it. Oh, and I won't even start on the names you get called."

Jim smiled. "Like Neo-hippie witch doctor punk?" He stabbed a piece of egg and ate it.

"I like that one, man," Blair said, relaxing and chuckling a bit. "Hell of a lot nicer than most of what I got in high school. And you'd think adults wouldn't say that kinda stuff in front of their kids... Sheesh." He tried to clear the voices from his mind, the names that echoed around, knowing they weren't really there. And they couldn't hurt him any more.

Jim looked over at the young man, seeing the closed eyes and hearing the slow, methodical breathing. "One bad experience, Chief. That's no reason -- "

"But it wasn't just ONE experience, Jim." Blair pushed a couple of loose tendrils behind his ear, sipped his coffee and tried to sort through the feelings and fears and put the words together the right way. "I started Rainier at 16 and finished my undergrad early -- of course. I threw grading curves, messed up student standings, made a lotta people really uncomfortable. You know? You try making friends when you're 18 and graduating summa cum laude while tutoring students three years older than you. It was hard... to ... to gain acceptance." He felt the dryness in his mouth, the cracking of his voice as his throat constricted. Even a large gulp of coffee didn't relieve it. "I tried to stop attending graduations, but Rainier wouldn't hear of it. They just loved to show off their little trophies. I think sometimes they made up awards to give me. Which may have helped them, but it sure as hell didn't make me any more popular. Sometimes it was a real hassle, man."

Ellison grasped for straws. "Wasn't there anything good about them for you?"

Blair smiled enthusiastically. "Yeah. Seeing Naomi happy."

Jim was just sitting there, not even picking at his food. He knew what Sandburg meant. He knew the pain of embarrassment. Of all the times for William Ellison to make a favorable appearance for his son... That damn award. Jim thought to himself. All he had to do was hand me the damn thing and shake my hand. But it had been another ploy to bring the great William Ellison, business man extrordinaire into the spotlight. Jim remembered the words as if it were yesterday. "If MY son can do it -- then I'm sure yours can too..." He could hear them in his head and even 20-some years later, they made him cringe. He understood what Blair was saying. All too well.

"We didn't mean it that way, Chief."

Blair smiled. "Nobody ever does, Jim. It just seems to go that way. So tell Simon and all of the gang, 'Thanks, but No Thanks.' I just want to be a normal graduating cadet." He stared at the countertop, examining something necessarily minuscule.

"But you're not, Sandburg."

Looking up quickly, Blair tried to see if his friend was joking or not. "What?"

Jim was eating again, his appetite suddenly back ten-fold. "You said you wanted to be a normal graduating cadet. But that's not gonna happen. You're NOT normal, Sandburg. You never have been and you never will be."

"Ha ha ha."

Ellison stopped eating and crossed over to the coffeepot, refilling his cup and leaning against the counter by his friend. "I'm not joking. I told you once, you're one of the best cops I've ever met and you're a great friend. It takes something great inside you to be that way. As far as I'm concerned, that eliminates you from 'normal' status immediately."

To say Blair was stunned was an understatement. He blinked up at the man a couple of times, unsure of what to say. His friend wasn't prone to deep, meaningful conversations -- especially where feelings were concerned. "You mean that?"

Smiling at his friend, Jim pushed the young man with an elbow and mumbled. "Maybe."

After considering the answer for a few moments, Blair smiled and headed back to the table, grabbing his breakfast plate and walking to the microwave to reheat the cooled food. "Look, Jim. I know what you guys are trying to do: to make me feel like one of the team, but just respect my wishes when I say that doing it in front of my class wouldn't be the best way. If you alienate my classmates, then I've gained nothing."

"All right, Sandburg. All right." Jim grabbed the plate of hot food from the microwave oven, replacing it with his own. "We'll have a nice, boring graduation ceremony. But you don't know what you're missing..." He had a mischievous smirk on his face as he handed Blair the warmed plate and waited for his to finish.

Taking his seat back at the table, Blair gave one, loud huff of a laugh. "I can almost imagine. Probably some young female Vice cop in hooker gear who was going to bring me my shield pinned to her garter or something." He noticed his partner wasn't looking at him. "You guys will do anything to embarrass me, won't you?"

Ellison was trying hard not to laugh too much; he didn't want his coffee to spill over his hand. Setting his plate down, he took his seat and began to finish his food. "Look, no matter what Rafe tells you, the Vice/hooker thing was his idea." Jim received a scrunched up dishtowel to the face. "Hey! At least we didn't go with Megan's plan. Ooohhhh -- that one -- ha!"

Curiosity getting the better of him, Blair looked at his partner with a mixture of interest and fear. "I can only imagine." It didn't reassure him when Jim shook his head.

"No, Sandburg. You can't imagine. You just can't. But I think I still have the drawings in my desk at the station."

The auditorium was packed. Blair stood in line with the rest of his class, checking his uniform like just about everyone else. It seemed no one wanted to be the least bit imperfect for the ceremony. Shining his nametag one more time, he adjusted his shirt cuffs, then brushed some imaginary lint from his jacket sleeves. As he checked his watch one more time, he wondered when things would actually start and if he had time to be sick. His stomach was churning, roiling with nervous energy that he tried to expend by alternately clenching and stretching his hands. There wasn't a nail left on his fingers, and he thanked the dress code for including gloves, otherwise he'd be tempted to chew the nubs of his fingers themselves. A jittery figure next to him gave him a slight bump and he turned the female cadet to face him.

"Jeanette, calm down, would you?" he said with a smile, but she just smiled and turned back around to study the line ahead of them. Blair grabbed her shoulder and turned her around once more. "Jeanette!"

"Huh? What?" With a bit of a blush, she hid her smile behind her hand, then cleared her throat as if she could change her attitude that quickly. "Sorry. I didn't mean to bump you. I'll bet you're nervous." She smacked her head with a palm. "Probably not. You've been through this a couple times, huh? Probably used to all the attention."

"Looking forward to being just one of the crowd, to tell the truth."

Jeanette looked at him closely. "Sandburg, I should think you'd be more than happy at a commendation or two, not to mention the recognition of your academic performance, and your marksmanship skills -- which, if I have to say so myself, are pretty amazing given your aversion to guns."

"I've told you before. I just know how to make each shot count. I don't expect a certificate for doing that. It's part of my life motto -- to make it all count."

"Still..." she tried to form her next thought but the line had begun to move and the nervousness took over for a few minutes. When Jeanette finally got herself back up to talking, they were halfway down the aisle to their seats. "Well, at least you're getting your gold shield here, in front of everyone."

Shaking his head, he smiled and replied kindly. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not getting that today."

"But why not?" she almost yelled. "Do you know how big a deal that is? If it were me, I'd do it in a HUGE way, even have the hometown news here to cover it."

"News? Oh, Man. I never even -- " Blair stopped the comment quickly, looking around nervously as he and the rest of the class filed into seats. He hadn't considered that. It would be just like the newspapers to show up -- especially the tabloids -- and make his life hell again. He could almost imagine the numerous headlines about his new career, speculative future, and jaded past. It wouldn't be good. Nope. Not for him or his partner. He was turning around in the chair, looking to the hall entrances as well as the stage, dais, and balconies. Jeanette pulled him around to face the front of the large hall just as Chief of Police Warren bid the class of cadets to take their seats.

"What's he doing?" Simon asked quietly. He'd watched his new detective with no little nervousness himself. Pulling at his tight collar, the captain looked over at the young man's friend and partner. "Jim?" But Ellison's head was tilted rather irregularly, a sure sign that the Sentinel was engaged in some activity. At the somewhat confused look on Jim's face, Simon nudged the man to get his attention, then whispered. "What have you got? Please don't tell me there's something going on here. not now..."

He heard the words, he just didn't respond right away. Ellison's attention was focused on his partner's rapid heartbeat, then switched abruptly to the rapid heartbeats around him. With a slight shake of his head, Jim double-checked the number of rapid heartbeats -- six, his and those of the five people sitting around him. The five closest friends he and Blair had. He hadn't lied when he'd told Blair that Major Crimes wanted to celebrate. They did, more now than ever. After all they'd been through, and not just those five; the men and women of Major Crimes were anxiously awaiting Sandburg's official arrival into the department. Which, in accordance with Blair's wishes, would happen directly after the graduation ceremony...

"Everything's fine, Simon," Jim said as he turned to the man, seeing each of the seven people around him staring forward suddenly. Chief Warren had just approached the podium for his opening remarks. "Well, everything was fine."

"It's remarks like that, Jim, that make these things seem longer than they have to be." But after a long few minutes of a very boring speech, Simon was inclined to agree with his detective. Turning to face the man, he found Ellison's face had a half-smile and a somewhat vacant look. Almost afraid the man had zoned, he followed the line of sight to the stage. "All right, Jim," he whispered. "What are they talking about behind Warren's back?"

"Huh? Oh, well, the Mayor seems to think the cadets are having just as boring a time as she is," Jim reported with a smile. "The City Manager is listening to a sports station -- " But the rest of his sentence was cut off by the first round of applause. As the sound died down, Ellison checked his partner's vitals one more time, hearing the deep breathing and short conversation with the female cadet that was keeping the young man calm.

"Sandburg okay?" Simon asked once more.

Smiling at the fatherly tone, Jim nodded. "Yeah, typical Sandburg, trying to calm down by talking to a woman."

"Really, you two," Megan interrupted from behind them. Leaning forward in her chair, her head in-between the two men, she clucked at them slightly and teased. "You would think the commanding officer would set a better example. Especially to visiting officers who are anxious to view the sacred ceremonies of their American counterparts." She sat back quickly as the men turned to face her, then set a single finger to her lips to stopper their comments.

They looked at each other, trying very hard not to laugh.

Just to annoy her, Simon leaned toward Ellison so the Australian Inspector had to sit up a little straighter in order to see over the pair. But after a few minutes, Banks sat up straight again, complaining about his back, so Jim tried to spare some interest for the guest speaker. A difficult task, since the speaker's voice was slightly monotone and the speech itself was monosyllabic.

Perfect zone out conditions, he thought, a slight frown wrinkling his brow. Oh, he'd love that one. He managed to stay in reality, but only barely awake. If anyone ever needed to know, Jim could tell them just how many acoustic tiles there were in the hall's ceiling. Well, maybe not the exact count, but a fairly scientific guess. The applause helped bring him back to full consciousness, but he groaned inwardly at the sight of another guest approaching the lecturn.

Thankfully, the short woman awarding special training awards didn't take very long, and a few minutes later, Chief of Police Warren took center stage once more. But before the man could actually say anything, Jim heard his partner's voice. "It's gonna get real loud, real fast. Dial it down a couple notches or the reverb in here will take you a week to filter out." Ellison looked over at his friend, who smiled and finished his thought. "You are still awake, aren't you?"

With a laugh and a nod, Jim pointed emphatically towards the stage where Chief Warren had finally gotten the microphone adjusted.

Blair turned around just in time to hear his new boss begin the most important part of the day.

"The Cadets will now rise. Raise your right hands and repeat after me...."

Jim listened closely for just a few words. "I, Blair Sandburg, do solemnly swear..." Hearing that, he turned down the dial for his hearing and smiled broadly.

The oath administered, it was time for the individual badges to be presented. The majority of newly sworn officers were seated as the first row headed up the steps to the stage. It seemed that each name read was more important than the last as friends and relatives cheered endlessly.

Keeping his hearing turned down, Jim watched, leaning back in his seat and adjusting his tie. The cadets had been organized alphabetically, so now was just waiting time. "I hate ties, Simon."

"I know," Banks replied calmly, staring at his friend. "But it's not about you, man." Then Simon turned to face his officers, admiring them all in their dress uniforms, including Megan Conner. Jim had informed him that Blair wanted a plain graduation, nothing fancy, nothing special, and in some way, Banks could understand that. With everything that had gone down over the past year -- all the bad press, bad vibes, and bad days -- maybe it was just time for Blair Sandburg to be one of the crowd. And if he was going to be one of Major Crime's crowd, then they were going to show him they were with him, in silent support.

The group sat there, watching and waiting until Sandburg's name was called. Short conversations, side bets regarding the festivities to come, some general nonsense conversation helped Jim to keep his mind off his partner, and necessarily how nervous the kid must be. Gotta remember to stop calling him 'kid,' he thought, smiling to himself. Stretching out his hearing for just a second, he listened to Blair just to know his friend was doing well.

"Ross, Rupert, Russell..." Blair repeated, looking down the row to his left as his fellow officers stood and walked toward the stage steps. There were only about 20 people in front of him. Checking his watch, he timed the current officer receiving his shield, and calculated the approximate length of time before he would have to walk across that stage. Twelve seconds each, including family screaming, times 21 -- no -- 19 people, then divide by 60... Oh, Hell. Forget it... His brain had finally registered that knowing exactly when he would be on stage was more intimidating than just standing in line like a lemming. Hey, at least I'm not jumping OFF anything... More rampant thoughts as the line got shorter and shorter, until finally it was Blair's turn to mount the steps and hear his name called. "Officer Blair Sandburg..." He heard, and winced for a nanosecond before starting across the stage. He'd expected silence, or curiosity-stifled conversations, even pointing and giggling. But it wasn't there. People continued to talk and the buzz of conversation was superceded only by the nice round of applause Sandburg received as he shook the Commissioner's hand after being handed his badge by Chief Warren. "Thank you, Sir," He said, then stepped past the men, heading towards the opposite side and the steps that would take him back to his seat. It was as he was studying the badge, the intricate details of the shield, that something in him made him look up. He had to share it. Had to show it to the people who had become his support, his friends, his family. The tribe of Major Crime.

But he wasn't prepared for what he saw.

As Blair reached the opposite side, and looked up, he saw six pairs of eyes focused solely on him. They were all standing up, intent on him. Henri, Rafe, Megan, and Joel stood behind Jim and Simon. The six were clapping their hands and smiling as he made his way down the steps and back to his seat, and as he sat, so did they. It wasn't fancy, it wasn't flashy, and it wasn't false.

It was genuine acceptance.

Jeanette slipped into her seat next to Blair, seeing the man still admiring his badge. "Yeah, I'm sure it's not as pretty as your gold one will be," she commented, receiving a brilliant smile in return.

"Gold or silver, doesn't matter, Jeanette," Sandburg said quietly. "It's the job that counts. It's what you do with whatever you get that defines your character." He looked down at the badge one more time, then cast a glance over his shoulder to his friends and smiled for them.

"And what about how others see you? Doesn't that count for something?" Jeanette looked inquiringly at her classmate and fellow officer.

"Yeah. It does," Blair said without hesitation, then turned back to face her. "But sometimes, it's how you see others that makes the difference..."

"Okay! JIM! Gees, I get the hint!" Blair backed out of the elevator, hands palm-out toward his partner as if pushing him away. "I'm NOT to blame you for anything -- "

"That's right, Chief," Ellison answered, taking his time heading for the doors to Major Crime. He wanted to give his friend a chance to make his first official entrance on his own. Of course, Jim could hear everyone hiding in Simon's office...

Just as Sandburg made it to the doors, he smiled and pointed to the elevator. "Hey, I'm just glad you didn't bring a horse up here like that one party."

Chuckling, Jim adjusted his tie and unbuttoned his collar, sighing in relief. "Horses are for retirement parties only."

As he opened the door, Blair took a couple of quick breaths. The lights were on but there was absolutely no one to be seen. Glancing around the room, Blair was just slightly disappointed. Until he looked to his immediate right. At the end of the large room, next to the far door and facing Jim Ellison's desk, sat a recently cleaned off desk sporting a huge blue ribbon. The nameplate said it all. "Detective B. Sandburg. Case Coordinator." He stared at it, at the desk, at the blotter still wrapped in plastic, even at the brand new computer.

As he stood there, Jim gave a quick knock on the captain's door, silently motioning to the group to come out and welcome their newest member. Newest official member... Jim mentally corrected. "See anything missing Detective?"

There was no answer.

"Detective?" Jim questioned once more. He was about to ask again, when Simon held up a hand and walked up directly behind the young man.

"Detective Sandburg?" the captain said rather loudly.

"Huh? Captain... Simon... Sorry..." He turned around quickly, leaning against the desk, his hands gripping the edges to keep himself upright.

Everyone started to giggle, then Blair laughed at himself, and suddenly things were normal. Rhonda and Megan started the procession of well wishes with hugs and smiles. They were followed by the rest of the officers and civilians that made up the Major Crime Unit. And they ended with one Captain Simon Banks and one Detective James Ellison. The room was suddenly quiet as they all gathered in the center of the large room, in nearly the exact same spot as they had a few months before. It was all coming full circle.

"You know we couldn't just let you join us without a party, Sandburg," Banks announced loud enough so that everyone could hear him. "We trust your graduation ceremony was normal enough for you." At the wide smile on Blair's face, all the sarcastic remarks in the room died a quick and silent death. If Sandburg was happy, then they were happy. "I see you found your desk."

Sandburg smiled even wider, his eyes twinkling a bit as he cast a glance over his shoulder toward his new seat.

Henri looked over at it. "Is it all in order? Got your computer..."

"Blotter," Rafe added.

Megan gave a peek as well. "And name plate."

"Something missing, though," Joel admitted, stepping up to glance over the desk.

Jim stood by the doorway, silently observing, his hand rubbing at the back of his neck as he avoided his partner's pleading gaze. You got your way at the graduation, he thought. You're just gonna have to like it or lump it, now.

"Probably my insurance card and first aid kit," Blair mumbled quickly, hearing those around him laugh and explain to the few behind them.

"No, Sandburg," Simon replied, and tossed the leather case to his friend. "We were thinking more along these lines."

Blair knew it was his shield. His gold shield. "Thank you. Everyone, thank you. For your support and your acceptance. I hope I can do Major Crimes proud..."

"Sandburg," Banks said, seeing the young man look directly at him, "I think we've had enough speeches for the day, don't you?" As the chuckles died down, he turned to face his loyal group of men and women. "All right. What say we take this party to the party!" A couple of whoops and hollers were heard as the main group headed for the doors deciding just who would drive.

The mass exodus gave Blair a chance to contemplate his new position, and he looked at his badge again. He stared at it, touched it, flipped the case open and closed a couple of times, until Ellison stepped forward and leaned on the desk right next to him.

"You okay, Chief?"

Sandburg nodded, never taking his eyes off the badge.

Setting a hand on his partner's shoulder, he squeezed in friendly reassurance, then cuffed the younger man on the back. "C'mon, Junior. I'm ready for a nice steak."

Simon watched the pair head for him. "I have your first official order, Sandburg."

Blair stopped in his tracks. Simon was now officially the boss. His boss...

"I think he's already started to ignore you," Ellison joked.

"Started? I had that pleasure shortly after he arrived," Simon remarked.

Jim started laughing, only to have Banks call him on it. "And I have you to thank for that."

His good mood made him quick with a return. "Thank for what? Sandburg ignoring you, or him being here in the first place?"

The two exchanged a brief smile. "Both," they said in unison.

Seeing their young friend still lost in his thoughts, Simon set a hand on Blair's shoulder and poured out his best captain's voice. "Sandburg!"

"Huh? Oh." He grinned slightly. "Sorry. You were saying something about my orders -- ?"

The three headed toward the elevators. "Take your partner on vacation."

The doors to the elevator opened as Blair considered Banks' words. The three men had stepped into the elevator box and Simon had already pushed the button for the garage when he finally responded. "Refresh my memory -- what's the penalty for disobeying a direct order again?"

He sidestepped behind Simon to avoid the swat from Jim.

"Sandburg -- get your butt out from behind me..."

Act I

The shadow moved through the underbrush, clearly more sure of its footing than he was. No matter, he had to find it. Had to find the shadow. Stop the shadow. Motioning to the sleek panther next to him, he watched as the agile creature sniffed the air, catching the scent even HE recognized -- something rotten, something very, very foul... With an intense golden gaze, the sinuous cat nodded then took off after the shadow as it rustled through greenery. He couldn't let the panther go by itself. The need to follow was so overwhelming that before he had time to question his own safety, he was running after the beast.

As he ran, he could feel a strange energy within his chest. The sound of his own heart pounded into his ears, each beat louder than the one before, until there was no other sound. He could feel his perspective intensifying, his body growing slowly lower, until he was on the same level as the panther. Looking around as best he could, he realized his body was no long human... no longer upright. He was the wolf, the spirit of his dreams...

The beating sound of his heart was replaced with the sounds of the jungle around him. The rustling of leaves and a long, low rasping growl alerted him to the panther's presence on the other side of the bushes. Stalking forward, he could see the clearing, hear the growling. With little difficulty, his ears picked up the sound of the shadow, while instinct registered the horrible reality that it was not a mere shadow. The creature, Evil, was facing off against the panther.

Against his partner.

Habit drove him to the edge of the clearing, the need to be there, the desire to help, kept him close and watchful. The panther pawed the dirt in the, baring its fangs and claws as it faced the cornered shadow figure. Something in him knew the fight was not over, not yet. Very few cornered animals give up easily. The hair on the scruff of his neck was standing straight up, prickling at the evil presence. Twitching an ear in the direction of the fighting, he heard it. A rattle of danger, a stealthy shifting of branches and forest floor covering that the panther would not catch. With all its senses focused on the fight, his partner, the panther, was completely vulnerable to the slithering menace. He had to help, had to intercept...

Lunging into the open space behind the panther, he stood opposite to the deadly rattlesnake watching warily, but not moving. As it coiled to attack, he looked down at it, suddenly realizing he was once again human yet still on all fours... The rattle sounded just slightly faster, then stopped. In that instant, Blair felt the fangs dig into his neck, sinking deep as he fell to the ground. The poison burned in his throat, made his limbs heavy.

Once again his heart was pounding in his ears....

Thump. Thump. Thump.... Thump...... thump......thmp........... thm...........

... then it stopped.


Blair was brutally awake. Eyes open wide, hands gripping the armrests, the hand on his shoulder was the only thing keeping him in the seat. "Man!! Don't do that!" Closing his eyes, he tried to relax his suddenly tight chest by taking a couple of shallow breaths.

"Meditating again?" Ellison shook his head, then felt the cabin pressure dip and checked his seatbelt. "You started that after take-off and your chest is thumping like a tympani drum solo. What makes you think it'll calm you now?"

There was a dinging sound, light and slightly resonant, and a pleasant voice came over the speaker. "We'll be landing at Merced Air Terminal in a few minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts as we begin our descent. We hope you have enjoyed your flight...."

Blair took one last, long calming breath, exhaling rather noisily through clenched teeth.

Jim smiled, popping a piece of gum into his mouth and chewing vigorously. "We've got a reservation around here tonight, so we'll grab the rental car and head out fresh tomorrow morning." He stretched, easing the knots out of his back knowing the full day of paperwork, hurried trek to the airport, and end of the day commuter flight would soon be over. "Where are we supposed to go?"

Looking through the top of his book bag, the younger man mumbled something about an e-mail message and a reservation confirmation and information on some closed trails.

The pleasant voice came over the speaker once more. "Flight 922 from Cascade International to Merced Air Terminal is now on Final Approach."

Jim heard his partner's heart rate soar again, and he chuckled.

"WHY do they have to call it that?" Blair grimaced as his partner just laughed. "Yeah, yeah. Heh heh heh heh," he mocked.

Great captain and friend that he was, Simon Banks had given Ellison a week off in the guise of "mental preparation for your new partner." It had been a welcome gift. With everything that had happened and changed over the past few months, Jim felt he needed more than just one week to prepare for Sandburg's official start -- which was conveniently the very day he returned to work after vacation. Simon had confided to his friend that he wanted to give the pair a chance to clear their minds, get back to the nature of their partnership, and return to the job with a fresh perspective. Jim just figured the time was a good way to celebrate Blair's graduation.

It was Naomi, however, who had come up with the great idea to meet at her retreat in Yosemite. From the way she'd described the hiking and fishing and such, Jim felt it would be a great excursion and just the thing to clear the city air from his lungs. The atmosphere might actually inspire his partner to conduct some "Sentinel in the wild"-type nature experiments, something they'd both avoided for a while. At the very least, they'd have a few good days of outside exposure.

But he hadn't expected Blair to want exposure so early!

Their evening flight the night before had gotten them in late and they'd stayed in a small motel near the airport. Sandburg had gotten up EXTRA early -- pre-Ellison o'clock -- to leave for the park, but his anxious energy hadn't lasted more than a few minutes once they were inside their rental Jeep and on the road. In fact, he'd only spoken to remind Jim to turn on the vehicle's lights.

"Uh, Jim, buddy -- you might want to turn on the headlights."

"Why's that, Chief?"

"Cause it's dark, man, and you'll freak people. Most drivers aren't equipped with on-demand night vision like you Sentinels," Blair had said with a sleepy smile.

Then with a deep calming breath, the young man had turned his thoughts inward in an attempt to meditate the whole way there. It was still early in the morning, just before sunrise. Jim hadn't understood why his normally nocturnal partner wanted to get up and get going so early if all he was gonna do was meditate. They could've slept another hour, gotten a big breakfast or something, then headed toward the park. Whatever, Jim thought. Let him call the shots for a while. The drive was relatively short, the road free of traffic, and the scenery refreshing. Being almost May, the trees had begun to bud, even though the nighttime temperatures were still in the 40's. Some species of wild flowers had opened along the roadside as the sun warmed them. Jim put the window down in order to smell the damp air, and found himself relaxing. Those pleasantries aside, he still wouldn't have minded the situation so much if it hadn't been for the absence of conversation and the presence of snoring...

He noticed his partner's head drooping with sleep -- the kid hadn't lasted more than ten minutes from the motel. In general concern, he randomly checked Blair's heart rate and respiration. Compared to most other times, it was much lower, much more even and calm. Much like when the young man was meditating. Maybe he's finally getting things processed, Jim thought briefly, then turned his attention back to his partner. Or he's making up for all those early morning rousts at the Academy... Memories of his own academy days brought a smile to his face. With so much going on mentally, he didn't realize how fast the sixty-minute drive past until the first large, brown sign appeared. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Use left lane. The several parks surrounding the southern entrance to Yosemite had passed by rather unobtrusively, but the Yosemite sign seemed to jump out at him. As he pulled into the lane for the park entrance, he nudged his partner twice with no response. He finally gave the younger man a quick shove, watching as Blair jumped the same as he had on the plane. He smiled at the startled look, turning his immediate attention to the line of cars in front of them. "I think it's time to get out that e-mail."

Rummaging through the sack at his feet, Blair came up with a packet of stuff, pulling out a crinkled sheet of paper with some hand written notes on it. "Okay. Mom included our passes." He picked them out of the batch and handed them to Jim before continuing. "She said to take Wawona Drive North about three-quarters of the way. Something about a rock-slide closing the road up near Glacier Point Road." Looking at the map, Blair realized that cut off the route straight up the western side of the park. "Man, I'll bet that's gotta be a pain. All those tourists have to go out and around to get down to see the Giant Sequoias here in Mariposa." Putting his window down, he stuck his head out and admired the mammoth trees. "Oh, smell that air!"

"Yeah, Chief," Jim replied, moving the truck up another few feet toward the park gates. "What else does it say?" Getting no answer, he hit the UP button on the driver's side door, getting a muffled "aack" from Blair as the electric window threatened to close on his hair. Ignoring the dirty look, Ellison pointed to the paper. "The paper? What else does it say?"

"Oh. We can leave the Jeep at the parking lot by Ranger Station 12 and pick up our map packet with directions to the retreat camp. Someone named Dan or something will be able to help us." Blair stopped, watching as his friend handed over the park passes to the ranger at the gate.

"Here's a list of current road closings, accurate to this morning, and camp site closings as well. Please enjoy your stay in Yosemite." The young man smiled, then waved them through.

Once again, Blair stared at the trees around him.

Jim couldn't blame him. The enormous Sequoia tapered off as they proceeded up the road, giving them a glimpse of amber meadows spotted with copses of pine trees and thick, lush ground growth. The road was lined with oak and pines, a telltale birch finding its way in once or twice. And every so often, the roadside would clear, a dirt pull-off marked by a "Scenic Spot" sign over the guardrail allowing for spectacular views of the lower park's scenery. The road went up and down as the terrain became more complex, and Jim found himself thankful that he'd remembered his chewing gum -- even if it was before breakfast. The pressure on his ears would have been maddening.

Blair was reading the legend of how Yosemite got its name when Jim spotted the first yellow detour signs. "Run that by me again, Chief."

Hoping his friend was as interested in the story as he was, Blair paraphrased the couple of paragraphs. "The Ah-wah-nee Chief was going fishing when he encountered a rather nasty grizzly bear on the path..."

"And he killed it?" Jim asked, a hint of mischief in his voice.

"Yeah, with a tree limbm" Blair repeated in awe. "He dragged the carcass back to his village and they named the Chief Yo Semitee, meaning Grizzly Bear, and he eventually the tribe took on the name in his honor. Kinda cool, huh?"

"So, maybe you're descended from this guy," Ellison began with a small chuckle.

Sandburg was wary of his friend's lead in, knowing the usual Ellison humor -- all bad. "How do you figure that?"

"First he's going fishing, probably with one of your Hiawatha sticks. Second, he just happens to walk into trouble." He spared a quick glance over at his amused friend. "And lastly, he conked the animal out with whatever he could get his hands on. Oak limbs or baseballs, Chief... you have got to be related somehow."

The laughter in the cab was cut short by the appearance of the sign for the Ranger Station. Jim parked the rental 4X4 in the front parking lot and hopped out, anxious to check-in and head into the park. His excitement was hardly contained now that he was actually inside the gates. He had camped a lot of places, but this was his first trip to Yosemite, and the sudden burst of childish enthusiasm bolstered his spirits. This is going to be a good week.

He turned to see Blair exiting the car and staring around, looking almost as happy as he was. "So, what are we doing here, Chief?" Jim asked quietly and with a slight smile. "What's the plan?"

"Well," Sandburg started, taking a chance to stretch, "we need to check-in with the Ranger Station, and get directions to the retreat area." As he spoke, he pointed toward the cabin.

Jim looked toward the building then back at his partner, who had donned his military-green boonie hat. The sight brought a smile to Ellison's face. "At least that one doesn't have fur or ear flaps. Or both."

"Very funny, man." Blair took another deep breath, closing his eyes as he concentrated on the pleasant feeling the aromas afforded. "The original aromatherapy..."

With a chuckle, Jim headed up the path. "All right, Davey Crockett let's get to it."

"Cool," the younger man said, suddenly full of his normal energy. "I wanta see how far we can get today."

His words would have been oblivious to anyone other than a Sentinel, but Jim had tuned him in as soon as he'd exited the truck. Blair had an aura about him. Something slightly static that Jim knew existed, but just couldn't immediately identify. In addition, there was something in the kid's eyes that didn't make a whole lot of sense. Probably just anxious to see Naomi. It's been a while, he thought, then steered his enthusiastic partner towards the cabin labeled Ranger Station 12: Office.

"Jim," Blair said as he spotted a rack on the far side of the cabin's small interior, "you get the information and I'll join you in a minute."

Before the detective could answer, though, Sandburg was off. Jim stepped up to the counter, clearing his throat to get the attention of the ranger there.

Glancing over her shoulder, she held up a single finger, silently asking for a moment more of his patience, then spoke into a mike in her other hand. "This is Station 12 reporting. All Pines camping sites closed for service. This includes Upper, Lower, and North Pines groups. Bridalveil Falls and camping areas closed as well due to no access. Still no passage to Glacier Point due to snow. Access to GP Road limited to park service vehicles only due to hazardous slide conditions. All passage to south end of park by way of Route 41 only." She placed the mike back on top of the radio case and turned around to face the large, handsome man. "Hi, welcome to Yosemite. Sorry for holding you up."

"Understandable," Jim replied. "Lots of stuff closed. Did we come at a bad time?"

The ranger shook her head and explained that part of the park was always shut down during the winter season due to either weather conditions or service work. It was actually a fine time to visit, since the number of tourists was less than In-Season, which satisfied most of the purist packers and rock climbers. "And you're a back-packer."

He grinned. "Yeah. Hi, Jim Ellison."

Taking the hand he held out to her, she responded. "I'm Ranger Danni Thompkins."

With a bit of a flirtatious smile, Jim inquired about her name. "Danni? That would be short for -- "

"Danielle. But all my friends call me Danni."

"So, Danni," he said calmly, deliberately using her nickname, "where do I start?"

"Well, Jim. It's called a registration form." Sliding the card across the table, she noticed he'd already reached for his wallet. The squawk of the radio took her attention momentarily, and as she turned back around from adjusting a dial, Danni was surprised to see the gun sitting on the counter. Her hand settled on her own weapon as she spoke. "You'll need to leave that here at the station during your stay, unless you're properly authorized to carry in federally protected lands."

He'd noticed her quick reaction, her hand on her gun hilt. As the ranger spoke, Jim turned his wallet around to show her the badge. He was pleased to see her hand move away from her gun. "I was just checking the serial numbers for accuracy. Wouldn't want to falsify government documents." His comment was interrupted by another squawk on the radio.

Turning around to get the mike, she mumbled under her breath. "Good thing I didn't have to shoot you."

Finishing the registration card, the detective ignored the Ranger's conversation after that comment, deciding to let things go for the moment. His card completed, Jim looked towards the back of the cabin, spotting his partner thumbing through a tour book.

Once inside, Blair had wandered toward the small rack of maps and miscellaneous guides at the back of the small cabin. The station housed a small menagerie of supplies as well as souvenirs, and the academic found himself picking over a number of books and examining each for anything interesting. Something in the back of his mind was forming a word or place, but he just couldn't latch onto it. Letting the thought go for then, he grabbed a few and then walked back to Jim, who was watching the ranger while she answered the radio call. Blair looked her over briefly, and noted Jim's eyes doing the same to the young blonde woman, which explained why Jim was taking his time. Deciding that what he wanted must be outside, he started towards the door. Just as he was walking away, he felt a large hand on his shoulder turning him around to face the young woman.

Ellison looked down into his partner's confused face. "You forgetting something?"

With a shrug, Blair silently answered his friend.

"Are you gonna register too, or are you heading back home early?"

In his haste to get outside, Blair had completely forgotten why they'd stopped at the ranger station. "My mind's somewhere else."

"Obviously," Danni quipped, setting out another registration card for the younger man.

Ellison decided to needle his partner a bit more. "See? Just like mine. BADGE number... Carry Permit..." and he pointed to the respective points on the card. "Better get used to it, Junior." With a small smile, Jim handed his partner a pen and pushed an empty registry card across the counter. "Relax, Chief. This is an easy one."

"Right. Right. I'll just -- uh -- fill this out. Why don't you get the packs from the truck while I --"

With a nod, Jim headed for the door. "Write, Chief. Don't talk. Write."

"Yeah, sure," he said to a closing screen door, then turned back to the paperwork. As silly as it was, Blair found himself stuck at the bottom of the card where he had to sign his name. Feeling for all the world like he was cheating, the new officer glanced at his partner's signature. "Det. James Ellison" was written in Jim's usual scrawl. Suddenly, Blair's mind was a complete blank...


"Huh?" Blair looked up at the woman, seeing the smile on her face. "I'm sorry. Did you ask me something?"

She pointed to the registry card and the empty section. "Did you bring your side arm with you, Detective? If so, you'll need to complete this section as well."

"Right. Side arm." Patting himself down rather briefly, Blair tried to remember where he'd stowed his gun for the trip. He'd been trying on holsters, feeling out the weights and placements. Jim had suggested several places that would have made it less conspicuous -- more natural feeling. Like that's ever gonna happen, he remembered thinking at the time. They'd tried the shoulder holster, which Blair had immediately nixed -- it dug into his ribs under his backpack strap. He checked the small of his back, but knew it wasn't there because the metal bar from the hiking pack pushed it into his spine, and even carrying the holster off center made the pack lopsided. His right hand went to his right side, while the left hand mirrored the action. With his eyes closed, he tried to remember the last place he'd had his weapon. Visions of his nylon hip holster fluttered through his mind and he suddenly smiled as the memory became clear. In the brand new lock box under my bed...Gees. Like I could forget where I put that?!?! he thought and chuckled. The sound of an answering chuckle made him open his eyes quickly. "Uh -- side arm. Found it."

"You'll need to register it."

He smiled. "Sorry, I didn't bring it. It is vacation, after all."

Danni looked rather suspiciously at him. "But you said you found it."

With a bright Sandburg smile, he explained. "I found it in the memory banks." Motioning to his frontal lobe, he tapped himself on the forehead, never losing his smile. "There's just too much clutter to sort through sometimes."

She studied him as he stood there writing, his hair back in a ponytail, sunglasses pushed up on his head. Not her idea of a typical cop. Detective, huh? Glancing down at the name on the card, she tried to control her surprise. Sandburg? Before she could say anything, Ellison walked through the cabin door, packs in hand. She couldn't help the smile that pulled at her lips as she watched the man walk toward her. If those eyes were any bluer, I'd swear they were drops of liquid sky, she thought, then looked away quickly as he stepped up directly in front of her.

"We're meeting with the Nettleson Research Group. They're on retreat here. We're supposed to pick up a member's packet here, directions to the camp and stuff."

Clearing her throat, she smiled up at the tall, cool detective. "That just happens to be my detail for the week."

As she turned to retrieve the envelope, Jim smiled at that all-too-interesting prospect.

"I didn't make up the packet, so just for good measure let me get you a copy of my map. Don't need you getting lost out there," she said eagerly. "Of course," she added the sound of the copier, "if you and your partner want to wait until tomorrow, I can give you a lift." As she handed the large sheet of paper to him, she reached for another couple of photocopies. "You should have gotten a list of road hazards and closures when you came through the gate. These are the trail warnings. Some are just for clearing and service, but others are restricted access only."

Jim was studying the map, knowing the group's camp wasn't too far into the park. The day-or-so-plus hike would put the pair in camp by afternoon tomorrow. It wouldn't all be easy, but the trails looked well marked and the terrain less intense than some places they'd been. Like Peru? Jim thought, and smiled to himself. Still, Danni was driving out the next day. His eyes brightened as he mulled over the idea of spending the evening in the woman's company. His placid thoughts were interrupted as his partner grabbed the map and his arm.

Nabbing the directions, Blair looked them over, his energy mounting already. "Jim, man, c'mon!" he exclaimed, then began dragging his friend out the door.

"What the -- ? Sandburg! Watch it..." Ellison muttered, trying to keep his balance. "Watch the steps."

She couldn't hold in her chuckle. "Be careful, 'kay? And don't forget the Bear Restrictions," the ranger called, smiling and giving a half wave. She sighed as she watched the men leave her station. Just before they cleared the doorjamb completely, she called a hopeful message to Detective Ellison. "I'll catch up with you two tomorrow."

"Right. Tomorrow," Jim repeated as his partner pulled once more and they cleared the door, then nearly stumbled down the steps. "All right, Chief... Which way?"

Surprise, surprise. We're not lost.

Jim watched Sandburg and the map from about 20 feet behind. To the older man's astonishment, Blair was taking all the right routes, following the map well enough that they were right on course -- and slightly ahead of schedule. No side trails, broken bridges, or confused directions at all. Musta gotten him straightened out at the academy, he thought, then chuckled to himself. I'm sure that'll come in handy more than just now.

Lucky for Blair, the trails were well walked and tended. The partners had both noticed the bundles of pruned branches sitting off trailside, awaiting pick-up. Freshly painted markers lined the paths and helped the "directionally-impaired" anthropologist -- as Jim had once called him -- to navigate.

There had been some talk on the hike, mostly commentary on the beautiful scenery. The morning had been slightly damp and misty, but had cleared up nicely as the sun had risen higher. Trees and flowers were heavy with buds, even more vivid within arm's reach than they were from the confines of the Jeep. With the relatively warm weather of the past few months and the excess rains, lots of wild flowers had begun to blossom. Blair had given Jim a friendly reminder to keep his sense of smell turned down. The discussion on senses that ensued led to a bunch of sight tests, and hearing tests, and an impromptu touch test when Blair found a large, fuzzy caterpillar and encouraged the Sentinel to see if he could feel the tips of the caterpillar's hairs without making the thing move. After a rather strange few minutes, Ellison had proven victorious, prompting Sandburg to declare his partner "more sensitive than a Wooly Bear." The laughter and good cheer had carried them through a couple of hours of tough hiking.

In between the laughter and testing, they decided on a place to stop for the night rather than push their limits to make the research group by the following morning. The two men talked as they'd hiked and came to the conclusion that they could have a leisurely evening, even sleep a little later in the morning and still make the retreat by mid-afternoon. When Blair made the original suggestion, Jim approved readily, wanting the opportunity to spend some personal time with his friend before meeting up with Naomi.

And, of course, before seeing Ranger Danielle Thompkins, Danni to her friends. And Jim was looking forward to being one of those.

He smiled to himself as he extended his sight over his partner's shoulder and checked the directions on the map once more. The paper jiggled up and down in Sandburg's hands, causing the Sentinel to pull back a bit. The sight of his partner's animated figure caused a full laugh. There was no disguising the kid's enthusiasm as he followed the trails that would lead them to a nice open spot just about a two-hour hike from the Nettleson Group's private camp. Gazing out from the trail, Jim adjusted his ball cap and surveyed the open landscape before him. Trees in various shades of gold, green, and russet were highlighted by the sun, which had already started it's western descent. Closing his eyes and keeping his dial turned down, he inhaled deeply. Even damped, the Sentinel's sense of smell was extremely sensitive. Concentrating for a moment, he briefly enjoyed the smells of the land around him. From the moist leaves and forest floor grasses to the musky scent of the animals, everything smelled so wonderful. His senses were so sharp they even separated the odor of the dew from the trail dirt beneath his feet. If he notched the dial up and concentrated hard enough, Ellison knew he could probably even find Danni's perfume -- in spite of the fact that they were a good five-hour hike away from the ranger station.

Normal focus came back as Jim opened his eyes slowly and scanned around for his friend. His partner was standing ahead of him on the trail. As Ellison walked up, he realized Sandburg was lost in his own thoughts. Grabbing Blair by the shoulder, he turned the smaller man towards him. The body moved, but the head remained in place, eyes incessantly focused on a point somewhere in the distance. He tried to find anything in the immediate area that could capture and hold Blair's attention, but he found nothing more interesting than a pair of birds mating in the tree about twenty yards below the trail. Jim stood directly in front of his friend, waving a hand in front of Sandburg's face as he tried to stop the connection between Sandburg and whatever held his rapt attention. It didn't work. The young man stood stark still, eyes wide and slightly glazed. And at that Jim laughed -- leave it to his partner to finally have a zone-out of his own. Calling out the younger man's name produced no change either. As a last result, Jim poured a handful of water from his canteen and splashed it in Blair's face, watching as his partner's eyes dilated then closed and refocused on the big man.

"Welcome back, Chief." And they exchanged smiles. "Did I miss something?"

Blair's smile turned to a sheepish grin and he actually might have been blushing. He couldn't explain what he'd seen. It wasn't secretive or private -- he just didn't know. Some sort of sound had caught his ear, a fluttering or rattling of some sort, and his eyes had just followed it but not been able to find it. The next thing he knew, he was wiping what he hoped was clean water from his face. "Sorry, man," he said, looking around him and brushing off knees and elbows. "I was listening to something and didn't realize I'd stopped."

"Stopped? Sandburg you were imitating a lawn statue." Jim smiled. "Next time you wanna take a nap, Chief, warn me. C'mon, we can rest up ahead. There's a picnic clearing on the map and it should be just over the next rise."

"Why don't you lead?" Blair asked, his eyes suddenly a bit blurry, and handed Jim the map. He didn't have to ask to know that his partner had been studying it over his shoulder, Sentinel senses open full. Blair had a pretty good feel for when and which sense Jim was using most times. Guess this Guide thing is getting just a little easier. About time. Now if I could only get a handle on this Shaman thing...

Less than 20 minutes later, the two men were enjoying their packed lunch and a great view of the upcoming terrain. Blair stood up on the picnic table and stared in all directions, binoculars in hand to help him understand Jim's perspective. He was turning slowly, trying to keep his balance, when he saw it. It was unlike anything else in sheer presence and it drew him to it. But as he focused in on the mountain, his synapses were suddenly assaulted by bits and pieces of his dream... The shadow figure, the panther, the snake...



"Huh?" he said as the view through the binoculars went black and he felt something grab his arm.

"I said, get off the table! You're getting dirty footprints all over it. Now, c'mon."

"Just can't seem to drop the rules, can ya?" Blair smiled at Jim. "I suppose if I wanted to stand on the table at home, I'd have to take the boots off..." His knees bent just right to cushion his landing as he jumped down from the table.

"Nah," Jim said with a last sip from his water bottle. "No feet on the tables, and that means any table. You'd think after this long, you'd be completely house-broken."

They laughed a bit and started back on the trail. Jim wondered if they should take it easy, thinking possibly that Blair's internal clock had just reminded him that they'd had an early start. He noted they were slightly ahead of schedule, so they could slow the pace a bit and still possibly get in a little fishing before dinner. But Blair was already ahead of him, threatening to find another caterpillar.

Camp that night was relaxing and enjoyable for the partners. Blair started a fire in a rock ring while Jim caught dinner. To Blair's surprise, Jim had snuck a pan of Jiffy Pop into the supplies. They reminisced over the campfire, Jim sharing memories of family excursions and Blair recalling his numerous travels with Naomi. It was a time for sharing and bonding, and in the end Jim felt glad he'd agreed to the trip. He also noticed that the static -- the fuzzy aura Blair had been showing earlier that day -- had diminished. As they sat there, eating popcorn and trading youthful memories, Ellison actually relaxed in earnest, deciding the two would definitely go camping more often, since his partner was more at ease and open in the wilds.

Sandburg stared into the fire, breathing in the warm scent of the smoke -- even if it was a store bought log, it was still warm. Warm is good. Warm is very, very good, he thought, then smiled. The long day's activities had really drained him in terms of body strength. But his mind was racing, his energy levels spiking for the first time in a long while. It felt wonderful to Blair. He sat listening to Jim recounting a Boy Scout trip, staring into the fire as he did. The flames were shrinking as the log was consumed, the glowing orange embers casting warm colors around the ring of rocks. As he stared, he found himself watching each individual flame as it danced around the log. Each flaring, yellow flare twisted and flicked wildly around the crumbling piece of wood, taking a piece here and a piece there until the log was merely two ashen pieces held together by a thin, charred bridge. Still, the flames danced around it, and he could swear they were getting more wild. A couple of thin flares had flicked towards his feet. But instead of scooting his toes back, he pushed the boot tips closer to the fire ring. The taunt did not go unnoticed. A second after moving his feet closer, Blair was horrified to see a fiery, golden hand reach out from the rock ring, its charred fingers reaching for his foot. He moved his foot back, but it still came after him, a second fiery arm reaching out and pulling a golden body behind it. In sheer horror of the Golden Fire person, Blair attempted to get to his feet before it got him, but he felt himself trip over his sleeping bag and fall with a painful thud to his backside. He looked over at his partner, but Jim was still talking about his Boy Scout troop. "JIM!" he yelled and grabbed for his partner just as the fiery hand latched onto his boot.

Jim looked over at his partner, seeing the younger man staring intently into the flames. Doing a quick check, he found Blair's heartbeat slower, the breathing more relaxed. MUST be the area. Kid's so relaxed he's probably asleep with his eyes open. It was a nice night, clear and breezy, yet a bit damp, making the fire extra enjoyable. Jim followed a tendril of smoke up as it dissipated into the night sky, sighing and closing his eyes briefly. A muffled sound from his partner, made Ellison reach out and place a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Sandburg? You okay?"

"Huh? What?" Blair whipped his head around quickly, looking towards his boots and seeing them still attached to feet that were still attached to the bottoms of his legs. Oh, MAN! That sucks! he thought, then took a deep breath, shoving the hair out of his face. He had imagined the whole horrible thing. While his body had felt itself moving, his eyes had seen the golden fire person coming out of the rock ring to get him, his feet had felt the pull of those spiny fingers. But none of it had happened. Forcing a hard breath through clenched teeth, he shook his head and wrapped his arms about his body. "I'm going to bed, Jim. I can't sit out here any longer."

Jim narrowed his gaze at his partner, examining the suddenly wide eyes. "You okay? You seemed a little startled."

"I, uh, I think I was falling asleep with my eyes open. Right now, I just wanna turn in early..."

"With you, Chief, that's usually any time before dawn!"

"Funny, man. Really funny. G'night."

Watching Blair slip into the pop-up tent, Jim shook his head and smiled, then looked at his watch and shook his head again. It hadn't surprised him when Sandburg had said he was turning in "early." What surprised Jim was that according to his watch, they'd been talking for over four hours and it was nearly 11:00 PM. His partner's internal clock was really messed up, and Jim just laughedm then yawned, suddenly feeling the entire day close over him. He packed it in himself, trying to keep quiet in the small tent. he didn't need to worry, though. Even when he knocked over his mess kit, Blair was sleeping so soundly he didn't even startle.

Once again, he was running after the shadow beast.

As he ran, he could feel a strange energy within his chest. The sound of his own heart pounded into his ears, each beat louder than the one before, until there was no other sound. He could feel his perspective intensifying, his body growing slowly lower, until he was on the same level as the panther. Looking around as best he could, he realized his body was no long human... no longer upright. He was the wolf, the spirit of his dreams...

The beating sound of his heart was replaced with the sounds of the jungle around him. The rustling of leaves and a long, low rasping growl alerted him to the panther's presence on the other side of the bushes. Stalking forward, he could see the clearing, hear the growling. With little difficulty, his ears picked up the sound of the shadow, while instinct registered the horrible reality that it was not a mere shadow. The creature, Evil, was facing off against the panther.

Against his partner.

Habit drove him to the edge of the clearing, the need to be there, the desire to help, kept him close, watchful. The panther pawed the dirt, facing the cornered shadow figure. Something in him knew the fight was not over, not yet. Very few cornered animals give up easily. The hair on the nape of his neck was standing straight up, prickling at the evil presence. Twitching an ear in the direction of the fighting, he heard it. A rattle of danger, a stealthy shifting of branches and forest floor covering that the panther would not catch. With all its senses focused on the fight, his partner, the panther, was completely vulnerable to the slithering menace. He had to help, had to intercept....

He couldn't move...

The deadly rattlesnake slithered into the open space behind the panther, watching warily but not moving. As it coiled to attack, Blair looked down at it his feet, suddenly realizing he was once again human. The rattle sounded just slightly faster then stopped. In that instant, Blair saw the fangs dig into the panther's neck. The beast howled, then stumbled sideways.

Finally able to move, he lunged into the clearing and tore the snake away by its tail. His unfortunate hold allowed the snake to turn on him, and Blair felt the fangs catch in his wrist, bloody streaks appearing from under the rattler's head. The poison deadened his limbs and he fell to his knees, then sank completely to the ground, rolling over and over, and not knowing which direction he went until his side connected with something solid. It fell hard and fast, landing on top of him, whining in pain as it did. Shifting his body slightly, the weight sloughed off to one side allowing Blair to see it finally. It was the panther, a thick black rope cinched around its neck. Mustering what was left of his fading energy, he rolled it over, hoping to remove the rope. But the panther lay still and cold, a solid weight that he fought hard to turn to face him. Finally getting hold of a limb, Blair gave one quick jerk, falling beside the animal. Knowing his heart was slowing, his fight ending, he turned his head for one last look at his partner. The open eyes startled him, but he couldn't move. Dull, blue eyes stared straight ahead. Dusky blue lips and ashen skin, each cold to his touch, confirmed his failure.

JIM! Oh, man.... NO!

Morning in the woods was beautiful, and Jim woke to find his partner dressed and meditating on a large rock next to the water. The sun cast a shadow over his side, and Jim thought it unusual that Blair wasn't faced to the sun. Still, it was a glorious morning, and Jim stretched out just to inhibit any kinks that might be forming.

"Morning, big guy."

"Hey, Chief. Recharging your batteries?" He laughed and grabbed for a shirt as Blair walked past him, pulling his stuff together and packing up.

"You might say that," Blair replied, then hesitated. He couldn't tell Jim. Couldn't let him know the vision still haunted him, as it had since he'd awakened at dawn after the nightmare. Haunted him so badly, he couldn't even face the Sun for fear the Golden Fire people would rain down on him. He was just lucky that his screaming hadn't awakened the normally light-sleeping Ellison. Grasping at the only straw of reality he could, he spun it into a small Sandburgian explanation. "I was... uh, I was hoping to reset my internal clock. I think I forgot to wind it a couple months ago."

Jim just stared at his partner, a smile on his face. We're starting to think alike. What is it they say about people who live together? That they end up acting alike? Grabbing the fishing line, he headed for the banks, but was stopped on his way.

"No time for fishing, Jim. Here." And Blair handed him a bagel, then re-sealed the metal Bear-proof container.

Jim looked at his watch. 10:00AM. "I slept late?" And all Blair could do was nod and laugh as he handed Jim a cup, then poured him some coffee from the pot.

"I didn't have the heart to wake you. I must have pushed really hard yesterday. Coffee okay?"

Jim smiled. Maybe they had both pushed hard on the trail, and maybe the two were in need of more R&R than they knew. "Great. Nothing like camp brew to get your heart started." He sat on the same rock Blair had just vacated and watched as the younger man packed up the entire camp in a matter of minutes. After that, he doused the fire, cleaned the ring, and even attempted to sweep the area clean with a branch of leaves he'd found.

"I hope this means your room will get a good going over when we get home."

Blair looked around, then put the branch back at the edge of the campsite. He hadn't even realized what he'd done. "Maybe." And he smiled, as only he could, with the humor reaching his eyes.

"Tell you what," Jim started, and grabbed his pack, handing Blair his cup. "Since you did such a great job here, I'll go along with some more testing on the hike. Sound good?"

It sounded great. After the previous day's results, Blair was anxious to try some more tests along the same lines, but with some variables and controls he'd developed in his "meditative" hours before Jim had awakened. It had been a long time since they'd actually done real tests. And although he missed having a lab to call his own, Blair realized that field testing was all the more important. With everything that had happened, everything the past so many months had thrown at them, it was comforting to get back to basics. Like they were starting over... Blair had hoped the idea of Yosemite would lighten Ellison's mind, but volunteering for tests was almost a spiritual revelation.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, Chief. I'm sure." He cuffed Blair on the back as they prepared to leave the camp. "So what's first? We played some sight games yesterday, we'll keep the smell turned down again -- I think I can already follow you by that cologne you're wearing..."

They laughed and walked out of the area, a lightness in their steps.

My cologne? Blair thought to himself and laughed.

They worked through some easy things, identifying trees, animals, fungus and the like. Then Blair had him sight in on the smallest thing possible as far away as possible. With all the walking on the trail, it was a little difficult to do, so Blair had Jim pair his hearing and sight, using each of the senses to not only regulate but also to amplify the other.

Jim focused in on a shifting tree limb about a mile or so away...then smiled.

Recognizing the look of achievement on his partner's face, Blair grabbed his binoculars, intending for Jim to describe the area so he could find it as well. "How far out are you?"

"About a mile, maybe a bit more. Halfway down the slope -- there's a tree with a large bare spot on one side. You can't miss the squirrel's nest at the top. And there's a beetle digging away at the one side. Kinda sounds like H and his Scratch and Win lottery tickets."


Jim smiled, then shook his head a bit. Something closer caught his ear and he divided the senses again to listen more intently.

"Your senses are much more productive in natural settings," Blair whispered in an offhand comment, then thought about it. "There has to be some sort of genetic password that allows your brain to work on an augmented level, like a secret programmer's code to a video game. We'll have to work on you naturalizing yourself to the city, sort of trick your subconscious into thinking you're in your natural habitat, which you really are, since Cascade is your territory." He listened for a response, and turned to his partner just in time to see the man heading straight for a tree. A quick grab of his partner's elbow, and Jim was coming back.

"Hey, man! You okay? You locked onto something, didn't you? Something far enough out that you over-extended, huh?"

"No. I caught something closer, Chief," and he listened for it again, leaving Blair staring in wonder.


Jim shook his head. It was trouble. What had initially caught his ear was the single shift of a gun being readied to fire. A slide locking into place. And not any slide, an automatic weapon -- he'd heard that sound often enough that he'd catalogued it. The sound had come from just over the rise in the path and Jim had tried to look ahead, but he had gotten lost in the sound of feet.

"Stay here, Sandburg, out of sight! And don't say a word." In seconds, Jim was at the top of the path, crouched behind a few large trees and staring some distance ahead at a campground. He scaled back to a clearing just to the left where a group of men in masks were preparing their weapons. A total of six, and Jim knew he couldn't take them all at once. They seemed overly prepared for hunting wild animals, but being that close to the campground, he knew their prey was something more domestic. Several noises reached his ears as he tried to focus in on their conversation. Bits and pieces of several things.

"They're in the cabin on the far side, back bedroom..." "Don't get too cocky, Teddy...I don't want anyone hurt unnecessarily..." "Then why all the firepower?" "In case it's necessary...We get in, get the package, and get out...." "Then we get paid?" "Then we deliver it and get paid..."

The sound of a bird much too close, then some other small animal, and finally a truck engine stepped on the voices, making them inaudible. Jim looked at his watch, then towards the rough road where the engine sound originated. It was almost 11:30, and Jim could only stare in horror as a park ranger's vehicle made its way to the camp. He knew it was Danni. He watched as she parked her Jeep then beeped the horn. A woman came running onto the porch at the sound, yelling Danni's name and embracing the ranger familiarly.

"It's been ages, young lady! Look at you! You look beautiful!"

He knew that voice.

"I tried to get here earlier, but I had to finish stuff at the station. And talk about beautiful! You haven't changed a bit!" the ranger responded happily. "Mom sent you some pottery, all the way from Arizona. It's in the back, come help me with it."

As the two women walked around the vehicle, Jim heard the crunch of footsteps. Pulling his gun, he turned and found Blair on the other end of his 9mm. He motioned to his partner to keep quiet, then led him away from the spot.

"I told you to stay there, Sandburg! Didn't the academy teach you to listen?"

"Jim, man, what is going on? And don't try to play it off, cause I know the camp is just below us, less than a football field length from here." Blair read Jim's dismay as it played across his face. "You pulled your gun, man. What's going on?"

Jim put a hand over his partner's mouth and listened intently for a minute. He no longer heard the two women. Instead, he heard two vehicles coming in from the east end of the camp and parking. Wanting to get closer, to find Danni and Naomi, Jim turned his hearing up all the way, unsurprised when he located the women in the cabin, talking happily with a third woman. But then things went fuzzy.

The sudden lack of response from his partner caused Blair to grab Jim by the shirt and force him back up the rise. "Jim! C'mon, man. Now is so not the time to zone." Sitting his partner down next to a tree, Blair removed his pack and his bottle of water, promptly squirting it in Ellison's blank face. Worked for you...

The dousing startled him, but it stopped the fuzziness. Looking around, Jim shook his head and searched the surrounding area. "Damn! I don't know where that one came from."

"Must be the fresh air, man," Blair said, then fell sideways as Jim jettisoned to his feet. Standing in the man's way, Sandburg put a hand on his partner's chest. "Or maybe it was the fact that you tried to do it without involving me. Now, stand still and focus."

Jim focused his hearing just in time to recognize the flank attack on the camp. It was too late for them to do much now. Interrupting the attack was too risky. The terrorists might hurt anyone -- including the two of them, which would effectively quell any chance of rescue later. Jim tuned in the sounds, deciding not to risk finding Danielle and Naomi.

"Good morning, campers. I'm just looking for Dr. Mesgar," a man said.

"In the cabin," she replied. "I'll show you -- "

"No, we know where we're going, thank you. Why don't you stay here with him." Another bolt slid into place. "And no funny stuff."

Several pairs of footsteps, then the creak of the door, and shouting.

Blair heard the shots, a couple of singles that seemed to hit metal, and ran towards the hill. Jim held him back, then pushed him further away.

"Hold on, Chief! Blair! Sandburg! It's too late to stop it!" Jim said and stared into his face, locking gazes with the younger man. "They're taking the camp," he explained quickly and stepped back, his hand going to the back of his neck. "And Naomi and Danni are there."

Act II

Nettleson Research Group's Camp, Main Cabin

"Hello," he said as he walked through the cabin's main bedroom doorway, staring at the two women. He'd always loved redheads. The shorter had light, almost strawberry blonde hair in a long braid. The taller woman had darker, auburn hair kept short and somewhat wispy about her face. If he'd come across either of them anywhere else, he'd have been half tempted...

"Well," the doctor said rather slowly. "I take it you're the party responsible for all the fireworks." Her soft English accent made her words sound more polite than she intended.

Great, one with a sense of humor, the man thought. "You are very correct."

"What can I do for you?" Dr. Mesgar asked quietly.

"We've come for you, Dr. Mesgar," he said, then smiled at the pair before continuing. "Oh, and your assistant can come as well."

Naomi stepped forward, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders. "What if we don't want to go with you?"

"Don't be foolish." Pulling his gun, he pointed it at the woman, surprised when she didn't step back from the threat. "There is only one other alternative."

Mesgar looked the man up and down, assessing the terrorist before commenting. "You wouldn't do that."

"Now is not the time to argue the finer points of kidnapping," he said with a laugh. "With or without her, I still get paid." To emphasize his point, he cocked the pistol, still holding it on the slender redhead. "All I need do is deliver one Doctor E. Mesgar. That is you, correct?"

"But without my assistant, I wouldn't be able to work. And face it, whomever your client is, he, she, or it, is going to want me to work. Now, what do you think your client will do with your money when they find out I cannot do as they wish because you killed my research assistant?"

"My, that IQ is large, isn't it."

"Matches your ego," the doctor quipped back, watching as the man shook his head and laughed.

"I guess that's why I get the big bucks, eh, doctor?" He motioned with the pistol, even though it was little threat to them, they stepped back from the man. "Oh, don't forget your coats. It's going to be chilly tonight. And doctor?"

Mesgar looked up at the man, then saw a taller man holding a machine gun step through the doorway. "Yes?"

"Remind me to keep you away from my client while I'm renegotiating my fees."

Grabbing their coats, the pair were prodded through the bedroom door and across the great room. As they exited the small hallway, they noticed the entire research team had been brought into the cabin and were being held there by armed guards on either side of the front door. All eyes were on them as they were taken out onto the porch and led to a Jeep parked just off the porch. They watched the man who held them hostage. He wasn't dressed any better than any of the other men with machine guns who had been running around the camp. They all wore tan slacks and green flight jackets. The jackets were fully zipped up, so there was no hint of the shirts underneath. And except for the leader, each of the kidnappers wore a stocking mask. Identification would be extremely hard should they manage to escape.

Mesgar stopped in front of the Jeep. "I've forgotten my briefcase. It's in my room, under my bed."

"And your point?" The leader asked sarcastically, staring down at blank, brown eyes. He motioned to one of the men, who stepped forward immediately. "Get the doctor's briefcase. You heard where it is." With a nod, the man was gone and the leader assisted Mesgar into the Jeep before securing both hostages with handcuffs.

When the lead kidnapper had exited with the hostages, the group members watched through the windows as the additional thugs also retreated, loading up in a pair of military-style Jeeps similar to the park service vehicles. Danni figured she'd wait until the men had left, then sneak to her truck and get the emergency radio from it. Suddenly, though, one of the masked men was coming back into the cabin. He still had his gun, but his focus was on something else. The ranger watched him head to the bedroom and return with a large, black case. She knew she had to at least try. Just before the man reached the door, she lunged for him, her hand snagging his jacket and something else. It turned out to be the strap to his machine gun, which promptly snapped, causing the weapon to fall to the floor. Stepping over the gun, he turned to the woman and backhanded her across the face, but she refused to let go. She tripped him up, but instead of falling back, they fell forward, through the cabin door and into the sight of two more masked thugs. Even though she'd landed on the man's feet, knocking much of the air from her lungs, Thompkins found herself on her feet first, but by then the other masked men were coming up behind her and she found her arms pinned behind her back. As the man with the briefcase came at her, she kicked, her large booted foot catching him squarely in the groin. He let out a yelp, and dropped the briefcase. Danni was almost certain she felt the other two men cringe in sympathy for their fellow terrorist, but she never got a chance to take advantage of that.

"Danielle!!" Naomi cried out.

"Move it out, now!" the man said, sitting as his driver started the engine and slammed it into reverse.

A gun came down on the side of her head, sending Danni into darkness.

Dropping her body to the ground, the three men jumped into the other waiting Jeep and followed the first vehicle.

Naomi looked over at the doctor, who was staring back at the camp. "Are you okay?"

"I'm so sorry, Naomi. I'm so very sorry..."

They made their way down the path from the ridge and into the camp from the west end, briefly surveying the cabins as they went. The doors were all closed, keeping Jim from seeing inside. It didn't deter his senses though, as he swept over the area, pausing for even the slightest problem. The terrorists had gone, but it was uncertain what they had left behind. Almost every cabin had multiple heartbeats -- slightly accelerated and nervous, but steady none the less. As the partners made their way toward the front of the camp, Jim spotted Danni and headed directly for her. As they approached, Jim saw she was starting to rouse and he moved towards her to help. Still running on defense mode, though, a sudden movement and noise in the doorway made the detective aim his weapon there.

"Come out with your hands up," Ellison called toward the doorway, watching as a couple of the camp residents exited the cabin slowly.

Blair shook his head, settled a hand on his partner's shoulder, and walked slowly toward the cabin. Knowing what they needed was safety, Blair pulled his badge and raised his hands above his head in a non-threatening sign. "It's okay. I'm an officer. My partner and I are just trying to help. Right now, we just want to see if Ranger Thompkins is okay."

The pair of women breathed a couple relieved sighs and backed up through the doorway.

Knowing Danni was coming around, Jim knelt next to her and removed his pack.

"Stay still and let me see," he said, smiling down at her. Looking up at his partner, Jim lifted the woman in his arms and carried her to the porch, settling her on the steps. "Ranger Thompkins? Danielle?" She winced and moaned a little. "Danni?" he asked softly, smiling a bit as she opened her eyes.

Not believing her eyes, Danielle closed them for a second or two, then opened them again, smiling slightly at the caring blue eyes that greeted her. "Oh, am I glad to see you."

"They headed out that way," he said, indicating the direction the two vehicles had gone. "But do you know if they turned left or right?"

She shook her head, then stopped abruptly, bracing one hand on either temple to possibly stop the vibrations.

"Sandburg, stay with her."

"Where are you going?" Blair asked rather loudly, immediately sorry for the action when he heard Danni groan in pain. "Hold up, man. What are you doing?"

"I'm just gonna get a look at the road -- see which way they went, then I'll be right back." That said, Ellison ran up the slight incline toward the main road, such as it was. More like a main trail. Stones covered the road, a fresh layer of dust settled on top of that. Looking to either side, he smiled. With his extended sight, Jim could make out the dust pattern and the faint tire marks that lead left out of the camp -- and deeper into the park. Wherever they were heading, it wasn't out. They could do any number of things -- hide the women and ransom them, camp out in any of the numerous caves until searchers gave up, or just hide the women and take them out another way... Or just hide the women where their bodies wouldn't be found... None of the ideas were heartening.

Glancing down the road, Jim knew he'd be able to follow the trail easily. So long as it doesn't rain. Hope we didn't bring any of Cascade's weather with us. he thought. Looking back at the camp road, he decided it was best not to leave his partner for too long. As he made the turn and came into sight of the camp, he surveyed the most visible damage. What vehicles there were had been completely ruined. Danni's Jeep had four flat tires and several bullet holes in the radiator. A large van sat next to Naomi's Volvo Wagon, both in the same condition as Danni's vehicle. As he came up towards the main cabin, Jim saw Blair had settled Danni on the porch, the kid's balled up sweater under her head. "Things are pretty messed up. They certainly didn't want to be followed," Jim said, his senses on the verge from the smells and sounds assaulting him. "Is there anyone else missing?"

Danni looked up and sighed. "Emily. I can't believe they took Emily..."

"The woman with Naomi," he confirmed with Danni's nod. "And this doctor, Mesgar is it? I heard them yell for him."

"Emily," She started, then suddenly stopped as she realized what Ellison had revealed. There was a bit of hate in Danni's eyes, tinged with more than a little confusion. "You heard? You were here when this happened and you didn't do anything? You didn't help? Why the hell not?"

Blair stepped up next to his partner. "It wasn't that simple. We weren't in a position to do anything."

"But you're police officers!" she said rather excitedly. "You let them take those women -- "

Before Ellison could even respond that it had been his decision to wait, Sandburg had stepped towards the woman. "We" he started, just a notch too loud, "didn't let them take anyone."

"You certainly didn't not let them," she tried to continue, but the dangerous spark in the young detective's eyes made her think twice and stop there.

"First -- we were up on the ridge when the assault started and wouldn't have arrived in time. And we weren't really a threat from that distance," Blair replied heatedly, his one hand gesturing furiously. "Second -- even if we had been here, resistance wouldn't have helped. You found that out for yourself!" His finger in her face emphasized his point rather nicely, he felt. "And last -well," Blair stopped, taking a very necessary deep breath to help soften the edges of his anger. "Just don't assume that I would ever let anything happen to Naomi!" Stepping past her, he tried to calm himself more fully. His ire was beginning to control the situation and that wasn't good. He needed to stop his escalating fear, which would in turn keep his anger checked. And stepping away from the accusations seemed to help.

Danni didn't really mean what she'd said. Sandburg knew that. He also knew it wasn't something the ranger could control. He and Jim were just the convenient recipients of her anger at the situation. That, he could understand -- at least he wanted to. Still, part of him agreed with Danielle. Blair had failed. He'd gone through the academy, all that training, and when he could really have put it to good use, he just couldn't do anything. If it hadn't been for the shots, Blair knew he wouldn't have known what was happening. Probably would've walked right into the camp, completely unknowing.

If Jim hadn't stopped him.

"If," he mumbled, his pursed lips the only thing holding back the venom from his voice. Taking another long, slow, deep breath, Blair concentrated on the actions and felt his stomach flip-flop once or twice. After that, it seemed better, as if he had actually quelled the anxiety gnawing at his stomach lining. It didn't stop the flip-flopping of his mind, though, and he wrapped his arms tightly around his body. "If we'd pushed the trail yesterday and arrived last night, we would've been in the camp, and maybe stopped this," he thought out loud.

"Or gotten hurt in the process and still not rescued Naomi."

Blair turned around quickly, finding his partner glaring down at him.

"All right." Blair nodded his agreement with the statement, then continued the idea. "If I hadn't let you sleep late this morning, we would have been here."

Once more, the large man answered. "Again, one of us could've gotten hurt. We seem to do that a lot."

"We should have stayed at the front of the park last night and arrived with Ranger Thompkins today," came Blair's last plea.

"You're pushing it, Sandburg," Ellison refuted. "Look what happened to her, Chief. We're better off right now, being able to go after them..."

Blair sighed, shaking his head at the futile conversation. "So? What do we do now?"

"We see what other information we can get, then we go after them," Jim said, standing up straight and crossing his arms over his chest. "And we get your mom back." The look on Blair's face at the words reassured Jim that his partner was going to make it. When the younger man had walked away, there had been a look of despair on his face. The slight smile wasn't up to the normal Sandburg wattage, but it was better than nothing. Glancing over his shoulder, he noted Danni move to the porch steps. She looked ragged all of a sudden, the bruise on her cheek more purple -- or her skin suddenly pale. "C'mon, Chief. I need you with me on this one. Can you do that for me? Pull yourself together?"

"Yeah," he said half-heartedly, then reaffirmed more emphatically. "Yeah. I can do that for you."

"Not just for me, Sandburg," Jim said, placing a hand on his partner's shoulder. "For Naomi."

The partners turned and went immediately to Danielle, leading her into the cabin to get cleaned up. She leaned mostly on Ellison, mainly because she was just a bit taller than Sandburg and winced if she had to lean over. The Sentinel knew the hitch in her breath and the tenderness under his fingertips meant bruised ribs -- maybe fractured, but he'd have to do a more thorough inspection, which wasn't in the present schedule. Passing through the great room to the cabin's one open bedroom, Jim settled Danni on a bed, then sent Blair for the first aid kit.

"Relax. Sandburg will be back in a second or two." Leveling the woman down, he placed a hand behind her head as he shifted a pillow for her. The smile she gave him stayed on her face as she shut her eyes and settled back.

He looked around the room, realizing as he took a single deep breath that Naomi Sandburg had been in that room. She'd been there only an hour or so before... One of her cases was still open on a small blanket chest at the end of the twin bed. Several articles of clothing lay across the end of the bed and one of her gauzy wraps lay pooled on the floor. A small incense tray held some ashes -- Not Sage, thankfully, he thought as he sniffed the air. But the smell he encountered, Naomi's perfume, caused a sudden smile to spread over his lips. Nothing in the world was quite as naturally intoxicating as Naomi Sandburg. He picked up her discarded shawl and examined it with his senses.

It struck him, then. He had unconsciously catalogued the woman in his memory. And if her smell was that recognizable, then he'd have no problem tracking her through the forest. Knowing that a fresh imprint would be more helpful -- especially given the variables of the woods and cabin -- the Sentinel took a deeper breath, allowing some cached voice to guide his actions. Deep breath. Recognition of sample. Overlay... he heard in his mind. Doing just that, Jim's senses began to break down Naomi's essence and file it away. But something was different about the sample. Something absolutely minute...

"Hey, Jim," Blair started as he walked through the doorway. He immediately fixed on the large figure standing by the window with a filmy article in his hands. "Jim?" The question was more of a test to see if his partner had zoned, but the slow smile that greeted him let Sandburg know there was more going on than could be explained in words. Seeing that Danni had closed her eyes and settled back on the bed, Blair crossed to the window and his friend. "So? What's with the shawl? You got something?"

Jim explained his theory on tracking the women, smiling widely as Blair nodded approval. When he mentioned the variant smell, though, Blair was immediately in research mode.

"Okay. You wanna try for it now? It could mean the difference in time, man." Seeing the slight nod, Blair told his partner to close his eyes and filter out the layers to Naomi's smell. "Strip it away a piece at a time if you have to, but you'll find it."

Following directions, the Sentinel did as he was told until there was nothing left but a small smell. Something like crushed flowers... flowers... Oh, no.


"Bless you, man," Blair said, examining the front of his shirt. "Warn me, next time."

"Ahgh -- Yeah," Jim sniffled. "It's some sort of flower. Probably wild. And it's mixed with dirt, like it was crushed."

Considering the description, Blair pointed to the floor. "Like it was stepped on, maybe?"

Examining the floorboards, Ellison smiled. "Good point, Chief." There in the doorway, was a spot of dirt something like the toe of a boot. Another spot of tread appeared about three feet in front of that, only a foot away from the bed. Looking more closely, Jim knelt, but found only the one boot's markings. "It's only on the right foot, Chief. And there's a hint of nicotine..."

"Smoker," They said together, a hint of bounce returning to Blair's body.

As Jim stood, something in the light caught his eye. Further examination of the floor revealed a partial tread print, something had caught the edge of it -- obviously taking the rest of the print with it when it had been...PICKED UP! His eyes went immediately to the glittering red/gold shawl that Blair held. "Hey, Chief... Hold that open for me." As the material was unfolded, the light filtered it from behind, shadowing the corner of the boot mark so even Sandburg could see it slightly. But to Jim, it was as plain as the decoration on the scarf itself. "Heavy tread -- hiking boot definitely. And it's got the same composition as the ones on the floor."

Seeing his partner smile, Blair readily returned the sentiment. "Way to go. Think I'll just call you Big Dog."

"Whatever, Chief," he said, finally standing. "At least we've got something to start with. Now. Let's get something more."

"I'm with you on that." They turned their attention to Danni, who had turned over on her side.

"Danni," Jim started, finding her still very unaware. "Danielle?"

Her eyes opened slightly, pain rimming the edges.

"I need to ask you about Dr. Mesgar."

"You mean Emily?" She said in a hushed voice. "What about her?"

"Well, that answers question number one," Ellison commented with a touch of sarcasm, watching Danni's face to see if she understood his words. He waited a second or two until she indicated understanding, then continued. "Question number two -- why Dr. Mesgar? What kind of doctor is she? And please don't say Anthropology." It was a light attempt to humor himself, to waylay the dread he felt at the current situation. The thought was obviously wasted on Thompkins as he saw the look of confusion pass over her face.

Blair, on the other hand, tagged his friend on the shoulder at the dig, then tried to move in to nurse Danni's cuts and bruises.

Through a haze of thoughts, Thompkins focused on the necessary information and responded. "Agronomist. Dr. Emily Mesgar, Ph.D. in Agronomy -- UCLA, Berkley," She told the detectives, a sudden pain in her cheek causing her to turn toward the offending hand. It was only Blair, but the quick movement caused pain to explode in her head. The second touch of the swab to the cut on her head didn't seem to hurt as much, but she really couldn't say much more.

"Agronomy? What area?" Sandburg asked, immediately intrigued.

"Crop production -- seed engineering," Thompkins answered, her eyelids drooping more seriously than before.

The partners briefly locked gazes as Jim spoke softly. "They came here for Mesgar. I heard them ask for the doctor specifically." Turning back to the ranger, Ellison set a hand on her shoulder, the back of his hand barely touching her unbruised cheek. "Danni." He was rewarded with a slight smile from the woman. "What's this retreat for? Were you supposed to do something in particular with them? Survival skills? What? Wasn't one of those 'Team Building' exercises, was it?"

Even listening was a chore. The sound of his voice, as pleasant as it had been, was suddenly pounding into her brain. Her cheek was tightening up as the lump swelled and throbbed. If she could feel it, she wondered why Ellison couldn't see it and leave her alone. She was beginning to revise her initial opinion of the handsome man. Cute -- oh, yeah. Caring -- probably some other day. Insane? Just her luck...

His hand detected the first shivers in her body, so Jim pulled Danni up off the bed, fighting the jacket off of her. She really didn't resist, but the jacket was difficult to remove without her assistance. "Okay, Danni. You rest." Laying her back down, Ellison pulled a blanket over her and then turned to his partner. "C'mon, Chief."

The pair left the room, returning to the cabin's great room and finding it nearly full of group members. The noise level was irritating the Sentinel. Each group member was murmuring, keeping a low tone that virtually eliminated half the range of Ellison's hearing. He couldn't re-calibrate and had to turn a silent plea to his partner.

Motioning to his head, Blair waited until his partner had protected his ears, then let go a shrill whistle.

Not only did it gain the group's attention, but their immediate dislike as well. Sour faces turned towards the young man and his tall companion, some recognizing them as the two who had helped the ranger.

"Now that I have your attention," he started. "My name is Blair Sandburg, this is my partner, Jim Ellison. We're here to help, but we need some answers first." His voice had started to break about mid-sentence, but Blair had pooled his resolve and continued. Wetting his lips, he asked a primary question. (Although not the question he wanted answered.) "What was the main purpose of this retreat? Was this a research trip? Professional conference? What?"

A petite woman in jeans and an oversized plaid shirt stepped forward, adjusting glasses that seemed just as oversized as her shirt. "We were just here for fun. Dr. Mesgar arranged the camp for us as a kind of thank you. We're her research team."

"So you weren't here working?" Jim watched the woman shake her head.

Blair rubbed his chin and asked another question. "And this was just vacation -- no secret testing or anything? No experiments. Right?"

The confused look on her face turned from one man to the other as if to question their investigative skills.

Even Jim had to look at his partner for a minute.

Blair caught the gaze and shrugged. "Hey, man. I just needed to know." With a gentle lift of his eyebrows, he continued. "With our luck? I needed to be sure." His hands went up in a gesture of "back off."

Jim shook his head and stifled his immediate sarcastic reply, offering instead the only crumb of levity he could. "I hear that." Seeing his partner smile slightly, Jim turned back to the group and started another question. "We're just trying to get a feeling as to why they chose Dr. Mesgar and Ms. Sandburg. Did they attempt to take anyone else? Is there anyone missing that we don't know about?"

There was a sudden stunned silence, emotionally empty faces all around the room.

The woman in the plaid shirt cleared her throat and motioned for the two men to come closer to her.

"You have something to say?" Jim asked.

She nodded. "Look, Dr. Mesgar doesn't leave her lab all that often. And when she does, she's usually at a conference."

Blair nodded. "She's reclusive?"

Again, she nodded. "Very. This is actually the first time in years that she's been out in the open."

"That's why they chose now," Jim confirmed with his partner.

"Must be," the woman said, then turned away. "Not like you find a Nobel Prize Nominee just wandering around the woods every day of the year," came her comment as she returned to her colleagues.

They once again exchanged a silent, knowing look. Jim cocked his head sideways, suddenly, as the low murmurs started again.

"What's the buzz, man?" Blair asked his partner.

But the hearing had gone beyond the voices. Something had caught the Sentinel's ear and was drawing it in. He motioned to his partner to follow, then walked towards a large chair off in the corner. Set away from the conversation area, but still close to the fireplace, the chair faced a writing desk directly under a window. Ragged breathing, escalated heart rate, heavy perspiration -- all earmarks of a nervous, and often guilty, person. But the Sentinel detected something else. Sobbing. Light heaving noises like someone trying to cry silently.

As they approached the chair, Blair maneuvered to one side while Jim took the other.

The huddled figure was wrapped in a couple of blankets, feet tucked up under her as she sat there crying. The box of tissues on her lap was empty, and had been for a few minutes as the full trash can in front of her -- and her sniffling -- seemed to indicate.

"Miss?" Blair queried in a soothing voice as he reached towards her. "Miss?" he repeated, this time a little louder, his hand making contact with a shoulder-shaped area of the blankets.

At the unfamiliar touch, she jumped a foot in the chair and screamed, swatting at the two men who were standing at either side of her. She jumped from the chair, squeezing into a small space between the desk and the fireplace. She refused to move until the woman in the plaid shirt stepped up quickly and gestured to her. Seeing her friend, she calmed down and took her seat once again.

"You'll have to forgive Lauren. She doesn't know you. I explained that everything is all right. Well, as right as can be expected at the moment." That said, the woman walked back to the crowd, which was now very silent, watching every move the detectives made.

Moving around in front of the chair, Jim waved his hand to get the woman's attention. He smiled, first, then knelt so she wouldn't have to crane her neck just to see him. With deliberate and precise enunciation, the detective introduced himself and his partner again, knowing she hadn't heard them the first time. With a couple slow movements, he apologized for scaring her and then inquired about her general condition. Assured she was fine -- other than an allergy attack -- Jim asked why she was crying.

Blair watched the silent conversation, awed and humbled by the rather fluid movements his partner made. Once or twice, Jim had to say the word instead of finger-spelling it, but they were unusual words that Blair figured didn't have corresponding signs -- and Jim's spelling left a lot to be desired. Observing Lauren's reactions, Blair realized by the changing emotions on the woman's face, Jim had described their current situation and was asking her what she knew. The woman's hands had started flying until Jim had grabbed for them and motioned her to slow down. After that, there were a couple minutes of sign language volleys, then Jim set a hand on the woman's shoulder and thanked her.

Realizing they needed some privacy, Ellison excused them both and led Sandburg out to the cabin's front porch. Before Blair could ask questions, Jim held up his hand. "First, I learned some sign language in the Rangers -- we used it for silent communications while on missions. But I learned a lot more for Carolyn's youngest sister. Meningitis when she was six left her with major hearing loss in both ears." He smiled as he remembered how he'd used it mostly to tease the young woman, than to communicate with her. "Second, Lauren made me promise to give you her apology before I said anything else."

"Apology? What for?"

"For not being the one taken." Ellison let that sink in before explaining the rest of his conversation with Lauren Plessy, Dr. Mesgar's Research Assistant. According to Lauren, she'd been battling an allergy attack for a couple of days and had changed the sleeping arrangements in order not to bother anyone. She and Naomi had switched rooms, which was how Naomi had been mistaken for Emily's research assistant. When the terrorists had entered the cabin, Lauren had felt the heavy vibrations in the floor and opened her door to check the situation. Two men, one in a mask, had brandished their weapons and headed for the bedrooms. Lauren had shut and locked her door, then shoved the dresser in front of it and slipped out the cabin window. She was about to knock on the other bedroom window, when she saw the men enter. Naomi and Emily were talking one minute, and grabbing their coats the next as they were pushed out the door. Moving around the side of the cabin, she'd seen the men load Mesgar and Naomi into the jeep. Once the men had left the camp, Lauren had gone back into the cabin, but not through her window -- it was too high for her to get back into. Feeling completely useless, she'd cocooned herself in the blankets and settled into the chair to process things.

Blair took in every bit of information, knowing any or all of it could help them later. "Did she tell you anything else?"

Jim shook his head, even though he knew it wasn't true. Lauren had also described how Danni had gotten injured. Something Jim hadn't really wanted to know. It was bad enough she was hurt and he'd heard some of it -- blended with the general sounds of confusion as he'd tracked the assault on the camp. He decided not to tell Blair all the details, mainly because there wasn't time and because there was nothing they could do about it then.


"Huh? Oh. Lauren also said she was amazed that no one else was trying to do anything," Jim said with a shake of his head. "I'm kind of amazed at that myself. There's a dozen people here, Chief, but not a one of them seems to be able to function without Mesgar. I'm familiar with group shock, but this is weird. The department wasn't like this when Simon was out."

"But we're talking about a different type of group, Jim." The academic in him had picked up on the tone of his partner's comment and felt compelled to point out that not all groups were as functional as the police. "True, Mesgar's team is set to function around her direction in a lab, but even out here, in an uncontrolled setting, they're not certain what methods to take in order to solve their problem -- namely to get the women back. And as far as Major Crimes going into shock when Simon's not around -- well, that's just because even when the man's not there he's still a threat."

"I'm gonna tell him you said that."

Sandburg nodded. "I'm sure you will, man. I'm sure you will."

They smiled winsomely at each other, then fell silent.

But Jim knew his partner's mind was far from still. "Look, Chief," Jim said quietly. "As long as we know they wanted to take Naomi, she's as good as alive. Lauren said she saw Mesgar refer to Naomi as her research assistant -- so we know we've got the woman's cooperation. She probably knows the situation."

"But what if they find out mom isn't the right person?"

Jim didn't want to think about that, and he especially didn't want his partner to worry about that right now. "We'll go on the idea that Emily is protecting Naomi's identity -- and we'll rely on the fact that your mom's a pretty resourceful woman."

There was a brief smile on the younger Sandburg's face. "That she is." His smile faded, though, as his mind latched onto a horrible realization. "They took my mom by mistake."

Ellison nodded solemnly.

"Dumb luck." Blair stared out at the other couple cabins, hands gripping the porch railing. "Wrong place at the wrong time." He sighed and bowed his head, eyes closed as the nausea crept back up on him. A couple of quick, deep breaths fought it, but didn't stop the ache in his chest.

"Chief -" Jim started, setting his hands on the railing and leaning closer to his partner. "Blair. I..." But he couldn't finish the sentence. He had a damn good idea what Blair was feeling -- anger, guilt, hate, despair. Hope was in there somewhere, buried under a mountain of insecurity. Hell, hadn't he been through it enough when his best friend, his Sandburg, had been abducted? Now it was happening to the other Sandburg. Must run in the family -- backwards, of course. He knew what was a primary constant in his own situations, but he wasn't sure if Blair worked the same way. Shaking his head, he tried to put words to his thoughts. "I can't help you with the fear," he finally said. "I can't just tell you it'll all be fine tomorrow. And I wouldn't even if I could."

Blair blinked and stared straight at the ground, nodding slightly as his friend's honest words reached in and registered.

"You know how I work. You wrote -- " Jim stopped and swallowed hard. "You wrote that fear was a big motivator in my life." The Sentinel gripped the railing harder, watching his knuckles whiten as he did so. "You've gotta know that I'm working on that right now. I'm going on instinct, Chief. I'm going on that fear."

They stared at each other.

"You've gotta work on it, too. You've gotta take that and make it find you a solution -- make an answer. Plot a course of action. Do something with it, but don't let it eat you alive inside."

Standing straight, Blair shoved a few curls away from his face and wrapped his arms protectively around his body. "That's how you work, Jim. How's that gonna work for me? You're the Sentinel, man. Not me."

"Doesn't mean you're not capable. And it doesn't mean you're any less important!" Jim said quickly. He leaned close to his partner and continued. "So what if it's how I work. Doesn't mean it won't work for you."

"But it's your instinct. Your way."

Arms crossing over his chest, Jim stood up straight and pointed at his partner's chest. "And how many times did I go on your instinct?"

Sandburg shrugged, bit his lip, then finally looked up at his friend.

"Oh, I seem to remember the phrase 'I'm clueless' came up quite a bit. More than once, buddy." The gentle tone teased at what seemed long-ago memories.

Jim took a deep breath and settled his left hand onto his hip while motioning in the air with the right. "All I'm saying is -- maybe we can go on my instincts for right now."

Blair let the idea sink in for a minute, trying to release the stranglehold he had on his insecurities and push them into any action other than nauseating him. It seemed to work, and he smiled. "Okay. Where do we go from here?"

"I'm clueless?" Jim quipped, rewarded with a bigger smile than the one before. Looking around the camp, he made the decision for them to split up for a while. "I'm gonna head out of camp, follow the trail and see if I can get a bead on where they're headed. You round everyone up, get a head count, damage report, and scrounge supplies. I wanna know what we've got to work with, MacGyver."

His partner's gentle reminder of his survival abilities seemed to bolster Blair's nerve and he nodded more emphatically. "I don't think I have any ballpoint pens on me, though, Jim."

"Well, let's just hope we don't need any."

"I'm with you there, my brother." Huffing out the last of his immediate anxiety, Blair walked over to the area of the porch where they'd left their packs. He knew he had a direction, a course of action into which he could funnel his energy. Unfolding his arms from their straightjacket hold on his chest, Blair picked up his pack and searched for his cell phone. A random thought caught hold as he stood up. "Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"If I'm MacGyver," he started, "who does that make you?"

Chuckling, Jim made his way towards the steps. "I'm thinking Pete Thornton."

Blair nodded and followed his partner for a few feet, stopping at the door to the cabin. "I could see that. Military background, Covert Ops, secret spy stuff. That works."

Checking the battery on his own cell phone, Jim found it fully charged, but the signal wouldn't confirm. "I noticed earlier that the phone lines into the camp have been cut. I'll see what more I can find out, then I'll head for higher ground and some clearance -- see if I can get a signal. If I can, I'll contact the ranger station, let them know our situation and have them send out help ASAP." As he headed down the steps, Ellison turned to his friend. "And, Chief?"

"Yeah. I know. Stay outta trouble."

"I was gonna say see if you can get Lauren back into her room." Blue eyes smiled. "But do that, too." He turned and headed down the last couple steps then walked towards the edge of camp, following the dusty tire marks.

Blair watched after the man, heading inside only after Jim had left his sight. "Right, Pete." He chuckled and shut the door behind him.


Bright and early the next morning, they returned to the academy. Blair's schedule offered relief from the tedium of being read aloud to, today they were going to be working outside at the 'back lot' on various stop, search, and arrest scenarios. The 'back lot' offered a variety of simulated locations: a city street, a residence, a warehouse, and an open field. The cadets weren't told what to expect when they made the stop. It could be anything from dealing with a pissed off member of the public to a suspect with felony warrants outstanding. All of the stops were videotaped so they could be studied later in the classroom. Weapons were paint guns that doused the recipient with bright blue paint when you were hit. The 'suspects' were staff at the academy or members of their families. It was a relatively safe way for the cadets to gain some valuable experience in what to expect when out on the streets. The cadets not participating in the actual stop were able to watch and hear everything going on by way of monitors. Blair enjoyed participating in the scenarios. They were real eye-openers for some of the cadets. The blue paint washed off, as he'd already learned from rueful first hand experience.

Blair watched Jim's class relocate to the test track, a quarter-mile south of the 'back lot.' According to the outline for the driving class, today they would be doing simulated mechanical failures. Since the 'failures' were remote activated, no cell phones were allowed near the test track. For Dallas to make a call, he would have to go back inside the building, which Blair could observe from where he was. What he'd do if Dallas started making a call, with Jim out on the track, he didn't know, but he'd always been good at improvisation.

Terrance Jackson, III, was going through his first scenario of the day. Blair hoped he didn't get an easy one, like stopping a Chinese driver who only spoke Mandarin. He smiled as he remembered the befuddled cadet who hadn't had a clue what to do in order to communicate. Sergeant Hewlett had let that one run for ten minutes before giving the cadet a break. When comments were solicited, Blair had suggested the Language Department at Rainier, where several professors were fluent in various dialects of the language. The sergeant had appreciated the idea, but he'd also heard Jackson's comment that if they couldn't speak the language, they shouldn't be allowed to drive.

Jackson made the actual stop flawlessly, positioning his patrol car where it needed to be to offer him the most protection. There were two young males in the car, and Jackson was notified on his radio that the vehicle had been reported stolen an hour before. Without getting any further information from dispatch, Jackson had ordered both the occupants out of the vehicle and face down onto the ground. The 'suspects' had objected saying the car was not stolen, but Jackson had refused to listen and ordered them to shut up. After handcuffing one of the young men, he had turned to secure the other. The unsecured 'suspect' had started to rise from the ground without being told to and Jackson had tackled him down, placing a knee on his neck to hold him as he roughly handcuffed him. Jackson had finished and then drew his gun aiming it at the two secured suspects, waiting for backup to arrive.

Most of the other cadets found no fault with Jackson's actions, but the sergeant wasn't so approving. The information Jackson hadn't bothered to get was that the car had been reported stolen by the first suspect's mother. She had not realized her son had taken the car. A real life example not that uncommon on the streets. While everything Jackson had done was strictly within acceptable techniques, the sergeant reserved any praise for his handling of the stop.

Jackson duly noted the lack of appreciation and he returned to his little group of followers to bemoan the 'kinder-gentler'treatment of suspects in the modern police force. Blair couldn't help but wonder what Jackson was going to be like on the street if he was like this in the academy. Instead of taking advantage of the years of experience shared by the instructors, Jackson always thought he knew best how to handle a situation.

"This place is run by a bunch of old men. Everyone is more concerned with play-it-safe rules and regulations rather then getting the job done. Getting the perps off the streets is what's important, not babying a bunch of criminals. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. How long do you think it's been since any of these guys have been on the streets? Well, I can tell you, they haven't been there in a long time. I checked. Most of these guys have been here for years. Teaching. They don't have any idea of what it's really like. And they don't like it when someone can run rings around them and their silly rules."

Blair moved away so he wouldn't have to listen to any more of Jackson's rhetoric when he noticed Sergeant Loker standing a short distance away. Why would Loker be watching the scenarios? He didn't remember Loker ever watching any of them before. He always maintained a polite, but definite distance between himself and the cadets. Loker stood there a few minutes more before heading off.

"Sandburg. Anderson. You're a two-officer unit. Get ready."

Blair buckled himself into the driver's seat of the patrol car as his partner buckled in next to him. It was hard to think of Amanda Anderson as his 'partner,' that word just didn't seem to fit anyone but Jim.

The handheld crackled to life. "Unit 1. Code 2. 609 there now. 1212 Mockingbird Lane. Reporting party at location."

Anderson acknowledged the call on her radio. "Unit 1, responding. ETA 1 minute."

Blair drove the 60 feet to the 'residence' as Anderson advised dispatch. "Unit 1 at scene. The front door is ajar. We are going in. Roll backup."

As they approached the house, Blair flashed back to the first time he had gone through a similar scene. It had been Susan Fraser's apartment then, and they had found her lifeless body in the bathtub. Shaking off the bad memory to concentrate on the here and now, he drew his gun and cautiously approached the door. He realized was sweating and took a minute to get himself in hand. I am not going to freak. This is just make believe. There is not a dead body in there in a bathtub.

His partner was looking at him curiously as she waited for him to signal he was ready to go in. Taking a deep breath and nodding at her, he pushed the door open with his foot, holding his gun in the ready position. She followed, covering his back. Entering the living room he called out, "Police. Anybody here?"

No answer. That meant a search of the two-room house. Great, and I'm going to be the one opening doors. There better not be someone hiding in the closet.

Blair cautiously checked the small closet next to the door. His partner moved quickly to keep him covered. It was nice to know if the bogeyman did jump out of the closet and get him, his partner was ready. I just hope she hits the bad guy and not me.

Throwing the door open, Blair stood aside to give his partner a clear field of view. Nothing. Okay, nowhere else to hide in here. Time to go to the bedroom.

Leading the way, Blair eased into the small bedroom. Feeling almost foolish, he carefully lifted up the bedspread to look under the bed. Clear. Anderson smiled at him, only one more door to open. If the "suspect" was still here, he had to be behind the bathroom door. Why did it have to be the bathroom door? Why couldn't he be under the bed or something?

Trying to listen as hard as he could, Blair approached the last door. Anderson got into position again. Throwing the door open so hard it almost slammed back shut, Blair held it open as he checked the room. Nothing. All that energy spent and no criminal to find, what a gyp. As Anderson holstered her weapon and walked towards the front door, Blair glanced at the tiny kitchen area. No, they wouldn't do that, would they? That would be so sneaky.

Blair motioned for Anderson to join him. She had a puzzled look on her face as she looked where he was pointing. One of the cabinet doors was not quite shut.

Nodding at Blair, she announced, "Let's go. No one is here."

"All that effort for nothing."

Both of them took positions on either side of the tiny kitchen and waited. After a few moments, the cabinet door opened a crack and a person began crawling out.

"Freeze. Cascade PD," both called out in unison.

The "suspect" was caught half in and half out of the cabinet and peacefully surrendered to the two cadets. Walking out to the patrol car with their "suspect" handcuffed, the sergeant met them at the door of the patrol car.

"Great job. How did you know?"

Anderson shrugged and looked at Blair. "It was Blair. He knew the guy was there."

"Charles Manson once tried to hide from the cops during a raid on the Family's hangout by hiding in a kitchen cabinet. I noticed one of the doors was ajar and thought it worth a look."

"That's real good observation, son. Keep it up and you'll keep yourself and your partner alive out there."

Blair smiled. That's the whole point, man. That's the whole point.

Jim's day was going swimmingly. The morning was almost over and he still hadn't been behind the wheel of the test car. Hoffman was being his normal, infuriating self and he was taking everyone in the class before him. At the rate this was going, Jim would still be waiting to drive at 8 o'clock tonight.

Still, Jim had to admit the track set-up was professional. The test car was rigged to simulate a blowout, a brake failure, or all four wheels locking up - all controlled by radio command. A skid pad was also available and could be flooded with water by way of a sprinkler system so that both wet and dry roadway conditions could be imitated. Numerous warning signs prohibited cell phone use in the area because of the danger of interference with the radio controlled test car.

In wasn't only the course though that drew Jim's attention. It was one of Cascade PD's Chevrolet Camaro pursuit vehicles. Officers had to go through a special training class like this one before being approved to drive the vehicle. It had a 350 cubic-inch V-8 with a fuel injection system that could go from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds, pass 100 in 13.5 seconds, and 140 in less than a mile. With the classic Caprice gone and Ford no longer offering the restyled Mustang for police work, there was no other police vehicle in the same league with the Camaro. Jim could admire it, but he wouldn't want to own one. Crawling into and out of the low slung Camaro all day long would be a real nuisance and the back seat was a joke. He would take his loyal truck, and its corresponding lower insurance rates, any day.


Jim looked around to see Sergeant Loker standing nearby. "Loker. Don't you have any cadets to run ragged right now?"

"Never fear. I have an unending supply of them. But this is something different. Let's have a talk."


"I have a proposition for you..."

Hoffman was busily grading the latest effort to control the test car in a skid on wet pavement when Loker approached him.

"I need to borrow one of your students for a scenario. I'll send him back to you after lunch. Any problem with that?"

Hoffman huffed, "The students are supposed to be here for all of the training. Not just when they're in the vehicle."

"And you can excuse one to participate in another training session if you want to."

"Why is this student so important? Go get somebody out of the break room for the silly scenario. The rookies won't know any difference."

Loker's patience frayed when he heard Hoffman's casual dismissal. "It's important because I say it's important. And I want this student. Now can I have Ellison or do I go get the captain?"

The driving instructor bristled. "Ellison, Ellison. What is he, some kind of Golden Boy? He managed to get in this class after registration had closed, and now you want to have him to run a scenario. Well, he'll have to make up the time he misses, I'm not giving him credit for being in class when he's over playing with the nursery school. Sure, take him. He doesn't pay any attention when he's here anyway."

Loker returned to the 'back lot' and gave Hewlett a brief nod before taking a position out of the way. Hewlett acknowledged the gesture with a nod and a grin of anticipation as he called out the next name.

"Okay we've got time for one more scenario before lunch. Jackson. You're up."

Jackson insolently went over to the patrol car. Sergeant Hewlett outlined the mock situation.

"Dispatch has advised you of an APB out on a suspect. He's wanted in connection with a murder. His description is a white male, 6 foot, 180 pounds, brown hair, and blue eyes. Got it?"

Jackson didn't make much of an effort to hide his disdain. "Yeah, I got it. Am I supposed to take care not to hurt him?"

"This is a felony suspect. Do whatever you think you need to do, within the law."

"No problem." Jackson got into the car and proceeded to the city street location.

"No problem, huh? We'll see about that." Hewlett smiled as he started the video cameras.

Blair was only partly listening as Jackson began his second scenario of the day. When the title, Suspect Identification and Apprehension had flashed across the bottom of the screen, his only thought was to hope they used a bigger "suspect" for Jackson to apprehend. He had been a little rough with the two teenage sons of one of the academy secretaries during his first mock arrest. He heard Hewlett giving the description of the wanted "suspect", and the moment blue eyes were mentioned, his attention snapped to the monitors.

It couldn't be, could it? Oh, this could be good, really good.

Jackson cruised down the mock city street looking for his perp. There were several people walking along the sidewalks, but most he dismissed immediately as being either too short or too fat. There, that had to be the one. The older guy with the brush cut leaning against the inside of the doorway. Jackson had a move to wake him up. He gunned the car, aiming the car to cut off the suspect's best escape route.

Jim couldn't believe the stupid move Jackson was making. Is he trying to catch me or run me down? Waiting till the last moment, he stepped back into the doorway as the patrol car slid past him and into a nearby dumpster. Shaking his head at the cadet's actions, he walked quickly across the street and entered the first building.

Jackson came fuming out of the patrol car. That was a great way to start off. Okay, so he missed a little on the sliding stop. It was still a good move. He looked over to where his 'suspect' had ducked out of sight. The market. Drawing his weapon, he went in search of his target.

Blair was really starting to enjoy himself. He wondered how long Jim would lead the rookie down the road on his introduction to humility. Please, let it last for a while. More of the cadets were coming over to the monitors to watch.

Jackson entered the market, gun held out in front of him, expecting to find his target hiding behind one of the shelves. Jim hadn't wasted any time hiding in the market. He had gone straight out the back door and was now sitting in the patrol car while Jackson busily searched the aisles. Getting tired of waiting for the rookie to clue in on the fact he wasn't inside, Jim flipped on the siren and then climbed out of the car on the passenger side. He ducked into the nearest building, a warehouse.

Jackson ran back outside to see the warehouse door swing shut. Running after his escaping "suspect", he forgot to notify his dispatcher of his change of location or to request backup.

The images on the monitors now grew darker from the reduced light inside the dusty warehouse, but there was still enough to follow the action of the two participants as the cameras recorded the scene.

Blair pressed the test button on the pager to get Jim's attention. Sotto voice, Blair cautioned his Sentinel. "Watch out for echoes in there, Jim. If you zone and let him capture you I will never let you forget it. Detective of the Year captured by presumptuous rookie. And I would tell everyone, man. You need to play with him a little more, okay."

A virtual cacophony of banging sounds echoed from the speakers as hundreds of ball bearings rolled from the second floor landing and landed on some stacked pipe below. Jackson jumped and fired three rounds from his 'weapon' before realizing he didn't have a target.

The cadet dashed up the stairs to the second floor, almost slipping on the remaining ball bearings as he renewed his search for his quarry. Following clear footprints in the dust, he paused when he noticed they ended in the middle of a walkway. He was so intent on studying the disappearing footprints that he never heard the sandbag arcing toward him. It struck him squarely in the back, knocking him flat as the bag broke and covered him with a fine, gritty layer.

Jim swung down from the rafter where he had been perched and picked up the fallen weapon. Shooting his helpless pursuer in the back of the head with the paint pellet he ended the pursuit.

"You've got to watch out for 'sandbags', they're a lot more dangerous than they appear on the outside. You're dead."

Jackson got up, bright blue paint dripping around his ears, and glared at his "suspect." Marching outside without even speaking to him, he was met beside his patrol car by Sergeant Hewlett.

"Guess you still need to work on those suspect apprehension skills, Jackson. And he was an 'older' suspect at that. Maybe a little experience is more than a match for those quick, young reflexes of yours. You wanted to be taught by people with street experience, so that's exactly what you got. Let me introduce you to Detective Jim Ellison of the Major Crime Division."

Jackson's insolent demeanor crashed harmlessly against the frosty expression of Jim Ellison.

"Detective. I suppose you enjoyed making a fool of me in there?"

Jim's eyes were like ice as he stared at the recalcitrant cadet. "I didn't make you a fool. You did that all on your own. You can benefit from these training exercises or you can blow them off. It doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is when you get out on the street and me or my partner get hurt because of some stupid mistake that you've made. Out there you don't get the opportunity to do it over again." He turned and headed back to his own class.

Jackson stared at Jim's back, resentment showing clearly on his face.

The walk back cooled some of Jim's own anger at the arrogant rookie. It was officers like Jackson who get other cops hurt. That had never bothered him that much before. He was used to taking care of himself, but now, with Sandburg hitting the streets soon as a cop, the issue was a lot more personal. Still, when Sergeant Loker had asked him to help out with trying to teach a lesson to Jackson, his knee jerk reaction had been to refuse. After all, the academy staff was experienced at getting young hotheads in line, and he was supposed to be monitoring Dallas. But Dallas was safely in the middle of the simulated driving failures and besides this wasn't just any class of rookies. This was Sandburg's class, and if what he did helped prevent the creation of another 'Dirty Harry wannabe', it was worth it.

Halfway back, Sergeant Loker caught up to him.

"Join me for lunch. Your class has already gone on break."

Jim used his sight to focus in on several officers from his class who were making use of the picnic tables spread out under the trees. Dallas was with a group of three other cops eating sandwiches. "You furnishing the lunch, too?"

"I did the inviting, didn't I? Come on."

Loker led the way over to a table set apart from the others and pulled a cooler from underneath.

"How did the scenario go?"

Opening the cooler, he gestured for Jim to take first pick.

Jim pulled out a roast beef sandwich and a couple of bottles of water before sitting down. "Do you see any blue paint on me? Seriously, I'm not sure I made a crack in that ego of his, if that's what you were expecting." He twisted the seal off a bottle of water and took a healthy drink.

"A crack would have been asking a lot. A good dent is all I expected, I can work from there up to a crack. That kid is going to get someone killed with his attitude, and more than likely it won't be him. It never is with his kind."

"You've seen enough of them to know."

He concentrated on eating his sandwich while simultaneously keeping track of Dallas.

"So, tell me, how did you manage to latch on to one of my best cadets?"

For a moment Jim had no idea what Loker was talking about, then it hit him. He was talking about his partner. And calling Sandburg one of his best cadets. A small smile sneaked onto his face.

"Experienced detectives require the best partners, didn't you know that? Besides, I've already gone to all the trouble to breaking him in just right."

"Well, if I remember what that meant in the 'old days', he can do the paperwork twice as fast as you."

"Closer to three times as fast, but who's counting." Jim paused before asking the question he had avoided since Sandburg had started the academy. "How is he really doing?"

Loker studied Jim's face a second before answering. The smile had been replaced by a sincere, concerned expression: the expression of a friend, who wanted to know how things actually stood, but was afraid of interfering.

"Some days it's been rough for him, I won't lie to you. There are others in his class who know what he did and are determined to challenge his fitness to be a cop on any level. The curriculum is way below his educational level, and the way it's taught probably makes him feel like he's in first grade. I would love to have someone like him teaching out here, his enthusiasm would make him an excellent instructor. Self-defense wise, he's not too shabby. He may not be big, but he's quick and inventive. Though that quickness won't do him any good against a bigger opponent who gets him in a full body hold. He's always going to opt for the least violent approach when handling a situation. Athletically, he's a bit below mid range, but he doesn't quit. He does seem to have some strange fascination for banging his head into walls. Does that come from working with you for three years?"

"Probably." And it's a good thing he has the determination to keep banging until he knocks those walls down.

"He'll make a good cop. You make sure you watch out for my cadet."

"It's been a priority since day one."

Sergeant Hoffman was making bets with himself on how long he could manage to keep Ellison at the track this evening making up for the time he had spent playing with the rookies. He'll have to run all the simulations, too, and he loses his temper when things don't go his way. He looked up from his clipboard to find Captain Woods filling his office door.

"I was informed that the academy staff borrowed one of your students to use in a scenario training session today. Make sure he receives credit for the time he took to help us out, will you?"

"Yes, sir. I'll take care of it." When the captain didn't leave right away, his resentment grew. "Is there anything else, Captain?"

"Yes, Sergeant, is there some reason your class is always running after hours? I've noticed that yours is the only one that seems to have this problem."

Hoffman couldn't keep a touch of sarcasm out of his voice as he responded to the question. "I don't have a problem, Captain. It's the officers in the class. Some are a little slow to master the techniques I'm trying to teach. You wouldn't want me to certify that an officer has the skills if he hasn't passed the training, would you?"

Woods wasn't the least bit intimidated. "I'll keep an eye on your class to see if I can spot any ways to make improvements. Isn't it time for your afternoon class to be starting, Sergeant?"

The captain turned and left the office.

Hoffman grabbed his clipboard and angrily slammed his door on his way out.

Jim stood with the rest of his group waiting for Sergeant Hoffman to begin the afternoon session. He figured that Hoffman would make him drive last, which would give him plenty of time to listen to any calls Dallas might make. If Dallas stayed on his own schedule, he should be checking in with his accomplice around 2 o'clock. Maybe he would overhear the location of the planned burglary this time and could wrap the case up.

For some reason, the test runs this afternoon went much quicker than the morning session. Hoffman wasn't requiring repeat performances unless someone totally screwed up. Weird. What happened to turn him into a different person? Jim wasn't going to complain about it though. At this rate, maybe he wouldn't get stuck out here until midnight.

"Hey Sarge, this one is almost empty. You want to go fill it up?" Micklin called out as he finished his test run.

The sergeant didn't even look up from his clipboard. "Yeah, but only put five gallons in. Ellison, you're up. Take car 2."

Jim had been watching Dallas head toward the main building, probably preparing to make his call, and was surprised to hear his name. Talk about lousy timing, why did Hoffman pick today to soften his attitude? He walked slowly toward the test car, piggybacking his hearing onto his sight to monitor Dallas every step of the way. Getting in and putting on the crash helmet and three-point harness, he drove towards the start line. Come on, come on, make the call, make the call. He followed the sound of Dallas' footsteps up the front steps and then down the hall. There was the squeak of a door opening and then a weird echo effect as Dallas went into the room. Where the hell was he? Sudden understanding came to him with the sound of running water. Pulling his hearing back a bit, he concentrated on getting through with his test run as quickly as possible while Dallas was...occupied.

The simulated failure was supposed to happen sometime after he reached 45 M.P.H. Not wasting any time now, Jim accelerated off the line and headed down the straightaway. The speedometer was climbing toward the magic number when without warning the brakes locked up, the front end dipped down, and the wheel jerked radically to the right.

There was no time to react as control of the vehicle was ripped from his hands in a second of terrifying reality. Unable to get control of the vehicle, Jim hung onto the wheel with a steel grip as the Chevy lost the battle with momentum and began to rollover.

"Sandburg. You're up. Let's see how you do on a traffic stop." The sergeant smiled as he motioned toward the idling patrol car.

Blair smiled back as he buckled himself in. Hewlett, at least, seemed to like him. The sound of screeching tires and then a hollow flat thud drew his attention over to the test track. As he watched, the test car rolled three more times before coming to rest on all four wheels again. He knew who was in that car. Without even realizing what he was doing, he slammed the patrol car into drive. Flooring the accelerator, he bumped across the field separating the back lot from the test track and the battered vehicle.

Sliding to a stop inside the still settling dust cloud, he jumped out and dashed over to the driver's door.

"Jim, man, are you all right? Talk to me. Are you okay?" Blair pulled frantically at the warped door, but the frame was bent and it refused to open.

Jim's hands were still gripping the steering wheel and he was staring straight ahead. There didn't appear to be any obvious damage, but he wasn't here either. What the hell could he have zoned on?

Seeing the other members of Jim's class racing closer, he took a deep breath to calm himself and dropped his voice down to Guide mode.

"Jim, time to wake up. We're fixing to have company real quick and this is not a good time for you to be doing your impression of a mannequin." He reached in and grabbed Jim's shoulder in a firm grip.

A quiver ran though the shoulder under his hand, and then Jim turned to look at him. "It's 411."

Nonplused by Jim's statement, he didn't really know how to reply. Looking at his watch, he gently corrected him. "No, man, it's only 2:07."

Growling, Jim explained. "The address, the address. Let Simon know. Now get out of here and keep track of Dallas if you can."

Blair backed off as several other officers finally arrived on the scene. He returned to his patrol car slowly, wanting to make sure Jim was okay before actually leaving. Jim had managed to climb out the window of the banged-up test car and was able to move around under his own power. As Blair got back into the patrol car, he noticed Terrance Jackson watching from the edge of the picnic area. The cadet held something in his hand.

As he drove slowly back to his own area, using the actual roads this time, he puzzled over Jackson's presence near the crash. He didn't strike Blair as being too overly concerned with his fellow officer. And what had he been holding? He tried to picture the object in his mind...palm-sized, dark... He slammed the brakes on as realization hit him. It was a cell phone. He turned and looked behind him toward the test track area. The hazard lights on the warning signs against cell phone use were still flashing. The picnic area was well within the prohibited zone. Angry, Blair searched for his nemesis, but Jackson had disappeared. Okay, maybe he didn't really know what had happened. He would wait until he had a chance to talk to Jim, but if it hadn't been a mechanical failure...payback can be a bitch. Jackson had finally gone too far. It was one thing for him to harass him in class, but it was a totally different situation when he messed with his Sentinel.

Act IV

He just couldn't run any faster. It was still after him, but his legs were worn out from the rough terrain. Throat dry and sore from hard breathing, he longed for anything to quench the burning thirst. As hungry as he was, he knew he wouldn't be able to swallow a thing. The plants rustled a bit and he knew it was coming quickly. He turned, jumping off the trail and into a mass of vines where he sat extremely still. He felt the cold shadow pass by, then waited another moment or so just to make sure it didn't double back on him. It was near, and it was still after him, but he knew he could breathe easy for a minute or two. Settling his head back against a tree, he rested elbows on knees and tried to relax. There would be no outrunning that thing -- only outwitting it. And to do that, he knew he needed to get control of himself.

First things first -- water. He needed it the most, not only to ease his overheated throat and dehydrated body, but to wash away the sweat and grime, removing the very smell of anxiety that the creature was following. Struggling to his feet, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the sounds. A trickling sound came clearly from only a few feet away. Pushing aside the overgrowth, he smiled at the sight of a small pool, not more than a few feet wide. A large, rough boulder sat next to it, water trickling into the pool from a jagged split in the rock face. As intriguing as the sight was, he knew he couldn't stand there and admire Mother Nature's handiwork. Leaning over the pool, he mugged at himself, smiling at the frizzy hair and dirt smeared face. A sudden glint in his own blue eyes made him hesitate before dipping his hands into the water. But when nothing happened, he knelt down and reached an arm towards his image.

Taking two handfuls of the water, he splashed his face, reveling in the feeling of the cool, quenching liquid. Heaving a delighted sigh, he opened his eyes and reached towards the pool again, but his reflection was suddenly distorted and unclear -- and not just from the minute ripples his hands had caused. Shutting his eyes and cursing himself for trusting a spring of unknown origin, he took a couple deep breaths and tried to calm himself once again. When he thought he had control, he looked back into the water seeing not himself, but the Shaman.

"Incacha..." he whispered.

Not only was the image in the water Incacha, it was motioning for him to come closer.

Not certain why, he found himself reaching out to touch the pool's surface. Something flickered under the calm and before he could retract his arm, Incacha's hand had breached the pool's surface and grabbed him, pulling him down to the water. He fought it, pushing up quickly with his legs, wanting so badly to scream.

"Blair..." the man spoke softly.

He stopped fighting for one brief second, breathing hard with surprise. Then with one last wild yank, he broke free of the Shaman's death grip, stepping back from the magic pool. The Shaman's hand once again reached out to him, palm up though, the tattooed Sentinel's eye winking at him, making him stare into it. Then it closed, and Incacha's hand closed around it becoming a fist, drops of blood squeezing from between the whitened knuckles. Where the thick drops hit the water, they boiled and a mist arose, wrapping itself around Blair. Yet, even as his sight was clouded by the silken haze, he was calmed.

As the arm retreated into the water, the mist dissipated.

Standing over the pool, he looked down into the water, seeing the Shaman smiling, pointing at him through the smooth plane of water. The water rippled over, distorting the vision of Incacha, then resolving to smooth once more. He looked at the man in the pool, seeing the tribal costume and warrior's paint. Incacha was still there...only... he wasn't.

He looked into the pool, then down at himself. He was the image the water reflected. He was now the Shaman... His body was covered with bloody markings, earthy paints and symbols, and his clothing had been replaced by the customary animal skins that symbolized his position.

Still thirsty, he knelt next to the pool, seeing only his own reflection, and dipped up some water to drink. Just as his hand reached his mouth, he heard a low growl from across the pool. There, on the other side of the pool, crouched the panther. It watched him, watched every move Blair made. Moving slowly, Blair poured the water out of his hand, denying his aching throat. Empty palm forward, he held out his hand to the beast, watching as it bared its teeth, grinning almost. To his utter disbelief, he saw the animal nod at him, then wait until he'd taken his hand back before it dipped its muzzle towards the water and drank.

Blair drew out a handful of the water and drank it happily. A couple of handfuls, and he was ready to run some more... Only, he didn't feel like running away. He knew he had to go after the shadow thing.

As if in answer to that challenge, the shadow moved along the trail, deliberately rustling the underbrush.

But he was ready, unafraid as it stopped somewhere in the overgrown plants directly in front of him. He heard it stop, felt its chill just barely touch him, then move away. It was on the run, now.

From the Shaman. From him.

The shadow moved through the underbrush, clearly more sure of its footing than he was. No matter, he had to find it. Had to find the shadow. Stop the shadow. The panther was now at his side, looking up at him in anticipation. Motioning to the sleek animal, he watched as the agile creature sniffed the air, catching the scent even he recognized -- something rotten, something very, very foul... With an intense golden gaze, the sinuous cat nodded then took off after the shadow as it rustled through greenery. But he wouldn't let the panther go by itself. Without a question to his own safety, he was running after the beast.

As he ran, he could feel a strange energy within his chest. The sound of his own heart pounded into his ears, each beat louder than the one before, until there was no other sound. He could feel his perspective intensifying, his body growing slowly lower, until he was on the same level as the panther. Looking around as best he could, he realized his body was no long human... no longer upright. He was the wolf, striding quickly to join the panther...

The beating sound of his heart was replaced with the sounds of the jungle around him. The rustling of leaves and a long, low rasping growl alerted him to the panther's presence on the other side of the bushes. Stalking forward, he could see the clearing, hear the growling. With little difficulty, his ears picked up the sound of the shadow, while instinct registered the horrible reality that it was not a mere shadow. The creature, Evil, was facing off against the panther.

Against his partner.

He stood at the edge of the clearing, knowing he had to be there, to stay close and alert. The panther pawed the dirt, bearing its fangs and claws as it faced the cornered shadow figure. Blair knew the fight was not over, not yet. Very few cornered animals give up easily. The hair on the nape of his neck was standing straight up, prickling at the evil presence. Twitching an ear opposite the direction of the fighting, he heard it. A rattle of danger, a stealthy shifting of branches and forest floorcovering that the panther would not catch. With all its senses focused on the fight, his partner, the panther, was completely vulnerable to the slithering menace. He had to help, had to intercept...

Lunging into the open space behind the panther, he stood opposite a large, deadly rattlesnake watching, guarding, unmoving. As it coiled to attack, he looked down at it, suddenly realizing he was once again human, crouched over, yet standing ready to defend his position... The rattle sounded just slightly faster then stopped just as the snake sprang towards him.

It was unusually larger than most snakes and sprang powerfully at him, but Blair was ready. His arm struck the slithery creature before it could sink its teeth into him or his partner. The hit sent the thick snake rolling towards the edge of the clearing and he went after it. He could hear the panther and the shadow creature fighting, but his attention was on the snake. He knew if he let it get away, it would cause more trouble later. He had to get to it...

As he watched it rolling over and over, his eyes focused on a spot a few feet on the other side of the snake. Rather, he focused on the fact that there was only a few feet on the other side of the snake, since they were suddenly at the edge of a mountain. The reptile continued to roll. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the panther standing over the evil creature's limp body. He brought his focus back to the rattlesnake, seeing it only inches from the edge. Without a second thought, he dove after it, snagging it by the tail as it went over the side.

But the snake was not happy, curling itself up to strike at his arm. Blair gave the heavy reptile a quick shake, hoping to thwart the attempted bite. Instead of biting him, the snake missed, mashing its head into the rocks.

Wild and agitated, the snake lunged again, and again.

The squirming and wriggling rubbed Blair's arm against the jagged rocks, cutting his forearm open. The pain was intense and unending under the weight and strain of the snake. As the animal's energy dwindled, Blair attempted to pull the large thing back toward the top.

But the creature wasn't to be taken so easily. In one last act of defiance, it broke free of its rattles, plunging to its death at the bottom of the mountain.

Blair was instantly awake. He'd opened his eyes as the dream had ended. The vision of the crumpled body across the mountain's rocky bottom dissolved quickly, though, as his mind cleared. Instinctively, he raised a hand to brush his hair from his face, but as his arms rose up from his sides, he stopped their movement and examined them in the dim, morning light. They were normal. No paint, no scrapes, no gashes -- no blood -- and he exhaled heavily, wrapping his perfectly normal arms around his body for comfort.

With a sigh, he stared upwards trying to calm himself, knowing his respiration was too accelerated to hide -- especially from a Sentinel. The day's first light was filtered by the blue nylon material, giving the tent's interior a light tint. With an excruciatingly slow turn of his head, he glanced over at his friend, finding the man's eyes still closed, his face peaceful with sleep. With a small sigh, he closed his own eyes and attempted quietly to roll over.

"Okay, Chief. What was all that about?"

"You're awake. I was just, uh..."

Shaking his head, Jim looked at his friend's back. "Don't even try, Junior."

Biting his bottom lip, Blair turned to find his partner was already sitting up. "Right. Okay. You want the truth."

Jim scrubbed a hand over his head and neck, then glared at his friend. "I wanna know what's going on with you. Ever since we got here, you've been acting strange." Holding up a hand to the immediate response Blair was about to give, Jim corrected himself. "Stranger than normal." Grabbing his boots, Ellison loosened the laces, then set them aside as he looked for some socks in his pack. "Right now, your heart's pounding like you're running from a freight train and you can barely breathe -- let alone make up an excuse."

Blair pushed himself up on his elbows, watching as Jim fitted the socks on his feet, then shoved a foot in a boot. "What else have you noticed?"

"Your nervousness on the plane. I passed it off before, but you've been really jumpy. You zoned out on the trail the first day. You awoke from a dead sleep -- and I do mean dead -- yesterday morning, calling my name." Gripping the shoelace firmly, he gave an angry pull.

"You heard that?" Blair asked incredulously.

"Yeah. I heard. I've got sensitive ears." Taking a deep breath, Jim continued just slightly calmer. "That was damned freaky, Sandburg. You didn't say anything afterwards, so I figured you were okay." Tying one boot, he watched his friend sit up and shiver. "Shoulda known better after you left the tent to meditate. Hell, it wasn't even sawn! Yeah... yeah... Here..." Jim threw a couple of shirts at Blair, then set to tying his other boot. "When you cleaned up the campsite and all -- which, by the way, I'm not forgetting when we get home --" He smiled, glad to see Blair's sight stifled by a shirt. " -- then let me sleep late, I guess..." He stopped what he was doing and waited for his friend to untangle himself to look at him. "I guess I just filled in my own explanation."

Sandburg was too intrigued to bother with his boots at that moment, even though his toes were freezing. "Okay. And what'd you come up with?"

"I assumed we were just kinda getting back in sync with each other." Jim looked away, avoiding eye contact. "Just working back towards where we were when this whole thing started." When he felt Blair staring, though, he had to face him. "Kinda like playing a video game, you know? You play and play until you get most of the tricks, then you hit reset and make a better go at it. I figured with the academy a done deal, and your badge and all, that this week was the last straightening we had to do."

"We?" Blair questioned, a sudden echo sounding off in his head. Let's? As in we?

"Yeah. We -- as in one Neo-hippie-witchdoctor-punk, and one Joe Friday." Grabbing a shirt, he threw it over his head to hide his face. Last thing Sandburg needed to see was him rolling his eyes in embarrassment. As he pulled the shirt into place, though, Jim was aware that his friend was staring at him. "Look, I wanna know what's going on with you. We're partners, we're even friends. You can tell me. Does this have something to do with your time in Sierra Verde?"

With the rapid succession of events over the past couple of days, Blair hadn't been able to dwell on the more spiritual aspects of his dreams. It was such a simple connection. "It might be, man. It just might," he replied, then gave a slight shrug.

"Don't tell me you don't know," Jim said, finding his partner's tone a little vulnerable and slightly confused. "Or do you think I just won't understand?" he asked calmly.

Blair fell back on his bedroll, running his hands over his face. "Nah, man. Why would you think that?"

"Because I don't understand it sometimes," Jim replied impatiently, causing his friend to look up at him cautiously. "I still haven't gotten an answer to the question 'why me?', and it's been over three years since I asked that one! So, if you're not gonna answer my question about what's going on with you, then can we go back to my original question and work on that answer?"

There was silence between them.

Blair smiled suddenly and sat up, setting a hand firmly on his friend's shoulder. "From me to you, Shaman to Sentinel. I'm clueless."

Jim shook his head and chuckled at the reminder of their previous conversation. "I don't know why I bother sometimes."

Suddenly feeling more at ease, Sandburg took a deep breath and grabbed his boots, pushing a foot into one. "I'm not trying to keep anything from you, man. That's not how I am. It's not how we are. I just have to deal with this myself -- like when you went into the grotto alone."

"You know I had to do that by myself," Jim defended. "I couldn't explain things until later -- until I'd worked them out."

"Right," Sandburg confirmed. "That's exactly how I feel. I need answers just like you do, and I promise, as soon as I get those answers, I'll share 'em with you."

Jim didn't like not knowing, but he trusted Blair. "Okay, Chief. Okay." Pulling on his jacket, he unzipped the tent opening and made his way out, stretching out the kinks in his neck and back.

Blair had just started out of the tent himself, when he heard it. A rumble, somewhere in the distance, just on the edge of his hearing. It wasn't very loud and it didn't last very long, but it didn't have to. Just the way it reverberated in his head made his pulse jump and his hands clench up with anxiety. It's starting...

It was out on the edge of his sight, beyond the actual valley where they were, but Jim followed the helicopter until he couldn't see it any more, then sent his hearing after it. Heading north-northeast, it faded out finally, and Jim turned around looking for his partner. "Let's get this place packed up, Sandburg." He was completely amazed to find the tent gone, packs fixed and secured, and Blair examining the map. "You know, Chief? If this is to make up for the answer thing -- I can wait till we get home, maybe a couple days."

"Funny, Ellison," Blair replied, then looked up from the map to find his friend turned away from him, suddenly very still. He recognized the look of concentration on Jim's face. "What have you got? Is the chopper heading back here?"

Jim shook his head then held up a hand to his partner, silently asking for a second or two more.

He knocked on the tent post then announced himself before having the guard pull back the tent flap for him. Garvine noticed neither woman seemed in a pleasant mood, even when presented with fresh coffee. "You'll forgive me if the tray is light. Breakfast will be served after we arrive at the rendezvous point." Looking at his watch, he smiled. "Which reminds me -- if you need to freshen up, then now would be the time. We'll be packing up in about fifteen minutes." With a nod, he removed himself from their stares and exited the tent. "Make sure they're secured in the back of my vehicle in ten minutes time. Oh, and watch them carefully. They're being a little too complacent for my tastes." He started to walk away, but stopped and took a step back, looking at the guard. "And if anything happens, shoot the Sandburg woman first. She's expendable."

"Did you sleep well, Agent Cameron?"

He nodded, then sipped his coffee quietly, watching the woman move slowly across the room. "Your ribs, Ma'am?" He inquired, motioning to her odd posture.

Danni nodded slightly, pouring herself a second cup of coffee. "The muscles have tightened up. Makes it difficult to move. Sleeping wasn't too fun either." She looked at the small man leaning over the park map that covered the kitchen table. He'd arrived somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning, insisting on a briefing before allowing anyone to return to their beds. She'd been all too happy to give him her version of the events. Of course, she recalled, Todd had taken a walk during her explanation. Sipping her coffee, she stepped up next to the FBI agent, seeing one of the three men who'd accompanied the agent standing at the front door. Peering down at the map, she noticed the markings he'd made on it. "What would that be?" she asked, pointing to a large red mark.

"This is the territory we've eliminated." He pointed to a blue line from the camp towards a green dot. "This is the line we think they took, and the point at which you reported them last night."

Pointing to a couple of brown dots near the green one, Danni inquired about their meaning.

After careful examination, Cameron smiled rather sheepishly. "I'm afraid I spilled my coffee there." He didn't miss the quick roll of the female ranger's eyes at his comment. "After our conversation early this morning, I was hoping you would do me a favor, Ranger Thompkins."

"Whatever I can do to help," she said quickly.

He smiled. "Our specialists have made a projection on where the terrorists are going, based on the park's status, Ellison's position, and a few other variables."

"You're taking a stab in the dark," she translated, sipping her coffee to hide her smile.

"Be that as it may," Cameron started with a smile, "we'd like you to stay with Ranger Holden, let our team handle the terrorists. Can you do that for me?"

"I'm not usually the one to disagree with experts," the woman said with a bit of annoyance. "But I work this park. I know this place and I can help you."

Her protests were of no use to him. "I understand, Ranger, I do. And I certainly appreciate the help you've given us so far. But I feel that you and Ranger Holden need to stay together and be ready to take charge of the victims once we've liberated them. Is that clear, Ma'am?" He watched her nod, then walk around him toward the front door. "It's a bit chilly today, Ranger. And those bruised ribs of yours won't be much fun if the muscles cramp up."

She reached for her jacket, carefully putting it on before heading out. She wanted to check on the rest of the research team members, let them know what was going on. Just as she touched the doorknob, though, his words stopped her.

"Oh, and Ranger?" Cameron looked at her and smiled. "Have Agent Mileski look at your injury again when you get back. He'll want to make sure there isn't any additional bruising or swelling." Watching her leave in just a bit of a huff, he smiled, then looked back at the map. "Okay, Ellison. Where are you headed?"

"Put that out, you moron. You wanna start a fire?" Garvine pointed to a carelessly discarded cigarette butt.

With a sour look, the man ground out the smoking object with the toe of his boot, then finished securing the women in the Jeep.

As he took his spot behind the wheel, William turned to address the women. "It shouldn't be long now. We head across the valley floor for a short time, then ditch the Jeeps and hike to the top."

"Top of what?" Naomi asked, letting her curiosity get the better of her.

With a smile, he pointed upwards. "Top of the mountain -- to catch our ride." He checked his watch, then switched on the global phone just in time for it to ring. "Yes?"

The women watched the anger fill Garvine's face painting it red.

"No. I don't want you to do anything strange. You leave them to us. We'll meet the pick-up..." Garvine cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, seeing his captives looking in opposite directions. "What? Well, bring 'em with you if you have to. And don't call again unless it's an emergency." He wanted to throw something. Unfortunately, everything was packed up, and he couldn't afford to throw the phone. Garvine also didn't want to give the women the satisfaction of knowing their search party had surprised him. Well, he had a couple surprises for them. "Let's go."

The two vehicles headed cautiously out of the small clearing.

"... What?" "I've got company and I can't ditch 'em..." "Well, bring 'em with you if you have to." Of course...""And don't call again unless it's an emergency." "Well, sir, I thought you'd want to know..."

The Sentinel smiled happily. Setting a hand on his partner's shoulder, he pointed to a spot on the horizon, watching as the younger man faced the area and examined it through a pair of binoculars. "Can you see them?"

Sandburg nodded, then turned a half smile to his partner. "That nose of yours was right. The group's moving out." Peering back through the lenses, he updated that. "They're heading north, I think."

Jim grabbed the map, pinpointing their position as he believed it to be and studying the valley ahead. They'd thought the group would escape in a helicopter from the current position, but during an earlier conversation, his Sentinel hearing had picked up the terrorist on a radio of some sort. The plan was to meet at the top of a local mountain -- not a good prospect to Ellison. He and Sandburg were on foot and had no climbing equipment -- not even some he could fabricate. Of course, Jim wasn't so sure he wanted to attempt a climb on an unfamiliar rock face, especially if Blair was going to be involved. At that point, they could only head out in the same direction on foot, monitoring the terrorists and hoping to meet up with the Federal Agents before the hostages were flown out.

"What's next, man?" Sandburg asked as he stepped up next to his friend.

He pointed to the map. "I figure they're heading to one of these two peaks."

Blair moved his hand over the map, a sudden energy surging through his fingertips as he did so. As it passed the first spot on the map, the tingling subsided, and was all but gone as he moved on to the other spot Jim had marked. "I'm thinking this one," he said cautiously, moving his hand back over the first area, rewarded when the tingle returned.

"My thoughts exactly, Chief. This top point is too close to the tourist area," Jim reasoned. A sound caught his ear and he turned back toward the enemy party. "Okay, Junior. I'm picking up more aerial activity. Let's check in with the rangers and see if Cameron showed up." Thrusting the radio at his partner, he went back to reading the map. "Give it three clicks before you talk -- they'll know you're reporting in."

Blair gave his partner a wary look. "That's like some covert ops thing, right? Cause they didn't teach me that at the academy."

"Survival skills," Jim replied with a smile. "Boy Scouts. Just do it."

As directed, Sandburg clicked the transmit button three times, then identified himself.

"Blair!" came a happy voice. "Are you two okay?"

Sandburg smiled. Danni sounded as if she were going to crawl through the radio, she was so excited. Reassuring the woman that he and his partner were both fine, Blair began to relay the information Jim was feeding him. Besides their map readings, the detectives gave their best guess as to where the terrorists were heading. "The map we have, has it situated northeast of something called Sen Falls."

"Sentinel Falls."

"Excuse me?" Blair fairly screamed into the radio.

Danni's voice came back more slowly. "Sentinel Creek is west of your current position. Sentinel Falls is south of you. If the kidnappers are heading north, then by your projections, they're heading to Sentinel Rock."

Grabbing the map from his partner's hands, Blair adjusted his glasses and looked back down at the abbreviated name under the black dot. "Your map just says S-E-N. Rock, and lists an elevation."

"Sandburg." Jim wrestled the map out of his partner's hand. "It's a forestry map -- you're lucky it doesn't have geographical codes or survey numbers. Give me the radio."

Blair took the map and studied it, feeling for all the world like he'd just been struck by lightning. The hair on the back of his neck was twitching, his fingers itched and burned as he touched the highlighted area once more.

"Danni, I need to talk to Agent Cameron," Jim said quickly, barely able to control his own sudden energy. He'd been listening to the radio conversation of course, but nothing prepared him for the bolt that hit him when Danni mentioned Sentinel Rock. If he could just get through the next few minutes, he would be able to head there, a sudden curiosity making him anxious.

"He said he had to make a phone call," Thompkins reported.

Jim hesitated, knowing he really needed to speak with Cameron at least once. Seeing his partner bouncing in place, he shook his head and smiled. With a sigh, he pressed the button and spoke. "Give him our information. We're heading out now."

"Jim!" came Danni's hurried voice. "If you're heading to the Sentinel, be careful. They're most likely going to land on the inside ridge. In order to get to that clearing, you'll have to come up the east side of the mountain. There's a path to the top, but it's narrow, long, and very unstable at times."

"That figures," Sandburg replied, receiving a harsh look from his partner.

"Copy that. We'll be careful. Out," Jim said, then turned the radio off and placed it into his backpack. "C'mon, Chief. Let's go see my mountain."

Danni made her way to the passenger's side of the Jeep, strapping herself in just as Holden started the vehicle up and headed it out. Giving Cameron a wave, she turned her attention to the trail and map.

They had been driving for about an hour when Danni noticed Todd hadn't asked her for any directions. He seemed to know exactly where they were going. And she didn't recall telling him where the detectives had been, let alone marking it on anything but the map in her hands.

"You want to keep going on this access road, then head towards the archeological sight."

"I know," he replied rather abruptly.

She set a hand on her weapon. "Oh, Agent Cameron filled you in?"

"Yeah, we talked before leaving camp," he replied, glancing briefly at the woman sitting beside him. "I know where they're heading, and we should make it ahead of them. We're supposed to scout ahead."

Danni's hand released the snap on her holster and began to carefully pull her revolver out. "It's odd that he didn't mention it to me."

Todd looked over at the ranger and cursed silently to himself. "Mention what?"

"That we were part of the attack plan. The last I knew, we were to wait on the trail." Danni saw him move a hand towards his jacket, but she was ready and pulled her weapon first. "Don't do it. Put both hands on the wheel."

Seeing Thompkins gun, Todd sighed, then reluctantly placed his hand back on the steering wheel.

Holding up the map, Danni worked on getting information. "You don't need these directions because you know where the helicopter rendezvous is already. Don't you?"

He nodded. "What do we do now?"

"We head back to the camp where I know there are more rangers waiting. You go into custody and give the authorities the information they need. With a good lawyer, you should be out in a couple of years -- after all, right now it's only aiding."

Todd considered that for a minute, glancing between the road ahead and the ranger next to him with the gun. "Yeah," he started, seeing her relax a bit. "Or I could do this -- " Wrenching the steering wheel sideways, he watched Thompkins get thrown sideways in her seat as the Jeep twisted about on the road.

The jarring turn sent a bolt of pain through her body, starting at her ribs. The shift was so sudden, it knocked her arm against the door and she dropped the gun. By the time Danni recovered, Todd had already stopped the vehicle in the middle of the road and drawn his own weapon.

"Of course, we could do it your way," she said sarcastically.

Shaking his head, he exited the vehicle, coming around to her side. "Scoot over and drive."

Danni did as he directed, content with the silence for the first few minutes. Her body needed the time to recover. She removed one hand from the wheel.

"What are you doing?"

"You've got the gun, mine is somewhere on the floor boards." She pointed then winced. "That little maneuver of yours really irritated my ribs. The least you can do is let me hold them while I drive." When he nodded, Danni reached into her jacket, placing her hand not on her side, but in the inside pocket of her jacket where the radio was. She switched it on, then gave the transmit button three short clicks. "Tell me about the other campers. Are they really lost?"

He smiled but didn't say a thing.

"What's it gonna hurt to tell me," the woman goaded. "I'm your prisoner, aren't I due a little exposition?"

Holden considered that point, then explained briefly that the kidnappers had captured the first set of campers the night before attacking the Nettleson group. The campers were fine, drugged but fine, and in a cave in the upper area of the park -- Tuolumne Peak, not too far off Tioga Road, which was still partially closed due to snow on the upper portions. That had worked nicely, since it limited ground rescue procedures. While everyone was worried about the eight lost campers, the other abduction would be easy. Plans were to send an anonymous tip to the rangers after Mesgar and her assistant were taken away. The helicopter was coming in as part of the voluntary air support, they would report engine problems and set down on the mountaintop, pick up their cargo, then break off and apologize for not being able to continue the search.

"Very nice plan," Thompkins commented with a conceding nod. "And with you as the inside connection, you had access to all the plans."

"Dr. Mesgar is a meticulous woman. She filed a detailed plan and itinerary when she booked the camp -- including information on her research assistant." He laughed. "She's also very paranoid -- she made sure we knew where the woman would be in case of an emergency. Of course," he said with some disgust, "she had to go and change her research assistant, but that's okay."

Thank God, he doesn't know... she thought briefly. "And how did you get involved?"

"Luck -- Garvine's my brother in law."

"Nice. Terrorist in the family."

Todd laughed. "Will isn't a terrorist -- more like a Treasure Hunter. He specializes in Rare Items. I just happened to know some of the things on his list. Remember, I'm only a ten-month employee -- gotta do something useful those other two months."

"So you help him?"

"I make the plans, he executes them." Holden smiled. "No pun intended. The camp was isolated, the phone lines cut, power lines cut, and the location in the valley meant cell phones had to be used in higher areas. We figured it would take a while for the group to recover, then someone would have to hike out or hike to higher ground. I'd delay on my end, then head out to search for the bad guys. Once I didn't find them, I'd return to the camp and make a report."

Danni shook her head and laughed. "But you didn't know about the detectives." When he growled in response, she laughed even more. "They weren't on the original list, they're Naomi's friends. I asked Reese if you'd filled out the paperwork on the emergency call Ellison made. He said no."

"Why didn't he just trust me?"

Thompkins didn't dare answer that while the man held a gun on her.

"He was so adamant that I call the FBI. Who the hell is this guy that he can just call the FBI and get people here?" He motioned with the gun, then pointed to a small road to her left. "Take this turn. You've got about twenty minutes to rest those ribs, then we climb."

Danni took the turn carefully, recognizing the valley ahead of her. "So we are heading to Sentinel Rock." But Todd only nodded to her. They hit a bump and she winced, pushing a hand inside her pocket, she turned the radio off, then attempted to massage her ribs. Hang on... Hang on... she repeated in her mind.

"Someone should have been here by now," Sandburg commented to Jim's back. "Something is very wrong."

Ellison had gotten that feeling too. He just hoped Cameron had a handle on the situation from that end. They hadn't spoken since the original call, but he figured the man was pretty sharp. After the incident with Colonel Oliver, the agent had given Jim his marker in exchange for Ellison's quiet about the military conspiracy. Keeping his end of the bargain meant that not even Blair knew all the details of the rogue Colonel's operation. If Cameron could help save Naomi, then Jim would definitely consider the marker redeemed, and he wouldn't feel so bad about not telling his partner.

A sudden sound behind them made Jim smile. "I'm thinking we need some transportation, Chief."

Blair stopped in his tracks as the larger man turned to face him. "What'd you have in mind?"

"Give it a minute."

No more than a minute later, Blair saw the ATV heading towards them, utility trailer piled high with the trailside bundles he and Jim had seen the day before. He smiled as his partner flagged the rider down, then flashed his badge, securing the loan of the vehicle.

After removing the trailer and reminding Blair to hold tight, Jim headed the ATV down the trail. They reached the bottom of the mountain quickly, noting the abandoned Jeeps in the meadow.

After letting his hearing clear the ATV's hum, Ellison tuned an ear to the trail. The women were obviously together.

"I don't see why we just don't make a run for it now." "Because I don't fancy falling off a mountain or being shot." "But that's a worse-case scenario." "Well, I don't want to burst your bubble, dear, this isn't exactly the best-case scenario but it beats being dead." "I wish Blair and Jim would get here soon."

Jim smirked at that comment, then turned to assure Blair that his mother was all right. When he turned, he found his partner staring up at the mountain.

There's something here. Something up there. I know this place. This is what I saw from the picnic table. This is why I'm here. No... why we're here. Smiling, he turned to his partner. "Let's go. Naomi's probably whining about us not saving her yet."

Jim chuckled, then followed his partner up the sloping path.

By the time they reached the summit, the sun was getting high overhead. Jim had kept an ear tuned to the kidnappers as they'd climbed. Halfway up the trail, he had stealthily taken out one of the men left to guard the rear. A hundred yards further up, Blair had taken out the other guard with a perfectly pitched rock.

"I see you've perfected your aim," Jim commented, helping his partner move the unconscious man into some underbrush.

Blair smiled. "Yeah, they're big on perfect aim at the academy." The partners exchanged knowing smiles, then headed up the rest of the mountain trail.

"There you are, ladies." Garvine placed a couple of bowls in front of the women. "Amazing what they're putting in those military meal packets nowadays. Peach cobbler. I hope it's to your liking. And I'll be right back with some coffee."

Naomi looked at the bowl in front of her, seeing Emily struggling with the spoon since their wrists were still cuffed. She leaned close over the small camp table. "I could fake anaphylactic shock..."

"That's a lovely thought, Naomi," Mesgar said with a grin as she finally managed to spoon up some food. Leaning closer, though, her face was serious as she finished her thought. "But I think I'll wait for your Mr. Ellison."

"Let's just hope he's here soon. He and Blair can't be too -- "

A loud clanging sound stopped her sentence and the two women looked over at their "host," who was cursing loudly.

"Well, go find out what the hell happened!" Pointing towards the trail, Garvine watched one of his men head out before crossing to his captives. "You two had better hope that we're only having communication problems. If there's someone after us, I promise you two -- we'll only be taking one of you on that helicopter." Slamming the coffee pot on the table, he nearly tossed the mugs at the women, then turned around and walked away.

Emily smiled and grabbed for the coffee, pouring happily as Naomi held the mugs. "You were saying something about your men not being too far behind?"

"Yes," she replied with a smile, spooning up some of the cobbler. "I think that's an early warning sign."

"Stop here." Ranger Holden motioned towards the small area that already contained three abandoned vehicles sitting out in the open. "This is brilliant, just incredibly brilliant." He shook his head at the sight, then looked up at the mountain. "Okay, Danielle. Out you go, and take it easy. Make no mistake, I don't like you and I will shoot you if I have to."

She wouldn't run off. If she could make it to the top of the mountain, she might be able to help. If everything was going right, then by the time they reached the top of the mountain trail, Jim and Blair would have the kidnappers taken care of and the women free. Danni watched him motion his gun towards the trail and walked that way. "You could at least bring the water -- it's a long climb."

After a moment's consideration, he grabbed the small pack out of the back seat and moved after her. "Well, I wouldn't want anyone to say I was unusually cruel."

Nope -- just maniacal, twisted, insane...

Blair looked around once more as they approached the edge of the clearing. "How far off is it, Jim?"

Cocking his head sideways, he whispered, "I give it a couple minutes. Three, maybe four at the most." He parted the branches of the bush in front of him. Naomi and Dr. Mesgar sat at a small table. The leader seemed to spend most of his time nervously pacing around the area. It wasn't a large clearing, probably enough space to land a medium sized chopper just long enough to load it up then take off again. Which, Jim had no doubt, was the plan. Well, the detective thought with a smug smile, at least the helicopter will be a few people lighter. If the four, unconscious, bound, and gagged men hidden along side the trail are any indication.

The odds were a little more even. Still, if they couldn't get the leader or pilot, they had to get Naomi and Emily. The helicopter really was getting closer, even Blair could hear it. Setting a hand on his partner's shoulder, he pointed to the women. "What do we do?"

As if in answer to their prayers, the detectives watched the last man leave the clearing.

"Where's he going?" Blair asked.

"Probably to look for the other four," Jim replied with a shrug. "It's not gonna get any better than this. I'll distract him -- you take care of Naomi."

But before Jim could make a move, his hearing focused in on a horrible sound.

"Now!" Naomi cried out.

The partners watched as Emily threw coffee on the terrorist leader, then flailed the empty carafe around wildly, landing several good hits to the man's body. Naomi picked up her chair and was about to hit the man when there was a single gunshot in the air. The women stopped cold.

Only a few more yards, Thompkins thought as she stopped on the trail, breathing deep but slow in an attempt to manage the pain in her side.

The pair were almost to the clearing when they heard the shot.

She saw he was startled and tried to run, but Todd grabbed her by the shirt, dragging her with him towards the origin of the sound. Danni wasn't willing to be dragged anywhere and gave Holden a swift kick to the side of his leg, watching him go down quickly. She turned to run, but he still had hold of her jacket and pulled her down as well.

Recovering his balance, Todd managed to get up on his knees, levering the woman onto her back. He had thought to pull her up by the jacket lapels, but when she ran her claws across his face, he punched her, knocking her out. As he registered the sound of another gunshot, Holden dropped the woman on the path, and moved towards the clearing. Choppers coming...fast!

"Watch my back, Sandburg," he whispered. Then, with a deep breath, Jim stood up quickly, watching the guard step closer to the hostages. With one well-placed shot, the Sentinel managed to knock the weapon out of the man's hands as well as disable the slide so the gun couldn't be fired again. The man simply held up his hands in surrender as Ellison menaced towards him.

The women were shocked momentarily, just long enough for Garvine to understand what was going on. Emily grabbed for him, but after a quick backhand, she fell to the ground unconscious. In a panic, he grabbed Naomi and pushed her in front of him, holding a large knife to her throat. Jim didn't waste any time, he clocked the last guy in front of him, then turned toward Naomi. She was fully in front of the man, nearly the same height, and almost pinned to him since he had one arm around her stomach. The hand wielding the knife was across her chest, the point of the blade meeting the soft flesh under her chin.

"It's over. Let her go and we'll all get out of this alive," Jim cautioned as he tried to find a shot. But the man was nearly the same size as Naomi, fitting behind her almost completely. There wasn't a spare centimeter anywhere.

"Drop it," William warned, pushing the knife up until his captive whined a bit. "Drop it, or she gets a tonsillectomy." He pressed the knife once more to make his point, rewarded with a genuine cry of pain from Naomi.

Looking into her eyes, Jim could see the lady Sandburg's resolve being stressed to its limits. She was very near the edge of panic. He tossed the gun aside and put his hands palm out.

Garvine laughed, pressing the knife up a bit more as he turned around briefly. "My ride is just about here. I can still make it out of here alive."

Jim gritted his teeth, then shook his head and scowled. "Not if you hurt her, you won't."

Blair watched the confrontation, rolling his eyes as he saw his mother smiling at Jim's heroic promise. Gees Mom... Do you ever stop? He shook his head and threw up his arms helplessly. As he was just about to jump into the clearing, Blair registered a strange noise, looking up quickly. He could see the helicopter coming closer, the blade's thwupping reverberating in his chest. Reassuring himself that it was only the wind, Blair turned his attention once more to the clearing. The chopper was just coming up fast, as Jim moved closer to the kidnapper, who hugged Naomi tighter.

"Let me go and I'll tell the court how nicely you treated us," she reasoned. "I can be very persuasive."

"I'll pass," William commented, then waved in the chopper with one hand.

Knowing it was her only chance, Naomi felt the pressure on the knife lessen, then thrust her elbow back into his ribs. When his weaponed hand fell away from her neck, she ran for Emily.

Jim rushed the man, who had recovered enough to turn the knife around and swipe at him. A quick roundhouse kick and the knife skittered across the rocks, but the man was a bit more agile than Ellison had planned and ducked the next punch, landing a solid blow to Jim's side. They continued to trade punches while the helicopter hovered off the side of the clearing.

Seeing Naomi free, Blair made another attempt to get into the clearing, but just as he was standing, he heard the noise again. It made him stop in his tracks.

The rattlesnake. He's here... he thought, looking directly in front of him. Ranger Holden was running up the path towards the clearing, and he had a gun. Blair glanced quickly towards the open area where his partner was fighting, then back to the ranger who was aiming into the clearing. The rattle sounded again and Sandburg felt a sudden chill pass by him. It's you... Narrowing his sights on the man, Blair launched himself out of the bushes and ran straight for the unsuspecting man. The force knocked them both to the ground, Holden scrambling forward on his knees towards his dropped weapon while Blair did a quick tuck and roll, coming up on his feet. He charged the man again, hitting him on the opposite side. The gun was kicked into the bushes.

Todd kicked out one booted foot, landing a solid hit to Sandburg's thigh. As the younger man moved back and stood up, Holden turned and located another weapon. He tried to get up, but found Blair had latched onto his other foot, forcing him face-first into the rocky surface. He gave another flail of his feet, feeling the weight gone, then pushed himself towards the weapon's handle, feeling his hand close around it. But he misjudged the area and found himself heading over the edge of the clearing. Over the edge of the mountain.

Sandburg looked up just in time to see the man's legs slip over the edge. "Man! This really sucks!" Disregarding the pleas from Naomi, Blair crawled to the edge and looked over. With a quick grab, he managed to latch onto Holden's left arm. "Gimme your other hand, Todd!" he called, the sound of the chopper all but drowning out the words.

He felt around beneath him, feeling a bit of a ledge and a toehold.

"Give me your other hand!" Blair screamed. The chopper was landing, and he didn't want to fuss any more. And he couldn't stand the view, either. "C'mon, Todd!"

Feeling his toes on the ledge, Todd sneered at Blair and raised the weapon in his hand. He made a pass at his arm, but Blair was too quick and shifted sideways. The knife hit the rock and Todd pulled it up to try again. The toehold crumbled away under his weight, and he dug bare fingers into the harsh rock. The knife dropped, forgotten as he tried to shift his weight and get another foothold, but his luck was at an end.

"Todd! I'm slipping!" Blair yelled. He looked down at the man on the other end of his arm, feeling the extra strain as Holden's feet kicked around the rock and found only air. For a brief second, the pain and pressure on his arm lessened, and he locked gazes with the man. In the next second, he watched helplessly as Todd fell toward the jagged mountain base 1700 feet below. "Oh, man! Jiiiiiiiiiiimmmmm!"

Jim's hearing picked up the distress call from his partner and he glanced towards the edge of the clearing seeing his friend writhing on the ground. The chopper had just landed, distracting the terrorist just enough that Jim landed a vengeful and urgent blow to the man's cheek, watching with some satisfaction as he crumpled to the ground. Heedless of the possibly dangerous helicopter pilot, he ran for Blair, catching the back of his jacket as he tumbled over the edge.

Blair looked up, seeing a pair of fear-rimmed blue eyes. "Jim!"

"Hold on, Chief," he said with a grim smile. "Just hold onto me."

"Are you kidding?" Blair asked rather sarcastically, taking a brief look down. "Like I'd really want to let go? You must be joking."

Pulling up with all the strength he could muster, Jim tried to lever the younger man up over the rocky ledge. "I never joke, Sandburg."

Blair laughed.

"Sandburg, see if you can swing a leg up on either side."

He gave it a try. Working one leg under himself to swing sideways, he worked up enough momentum to get a boot up on the edge, but it quickly broke the loose rocks away and fell, forcing his arms almost out of their sockets. "Jim! Man! Don't let me fall."

The two men looked at each other.

"You go, we both go."

There was a second of calm understanding, of unspoken trust.

"Try it again, Blair."

Swinging his legs again, Blair pushed with one foot and landed the other on the ledge, surprised when Danni appeared and latched onto the boot, securing it up on the ledge and helping Jim pull him up. As he reached the top, he rolled onto his back and stared up at the sky.

"Mr. Sandburg. Nice to see you again."

Extending a hand up towards the shadowy face, Blair hazarded a guess, somehow remembering the voice. "Agent Cameron, right? Where'd you come from?"

Danielle and Jim looked up, then over to the helicopter where the FBI agent pointed. "We cut off their escape route at the source." Several agents had exited the copter, and were in the process of securing Garvine and his one accomplice as well as tending to Dr. Mesgar and Naomi.

Ellison shook his head, wanting to laugh, but not wanting to insult the agent. He stood quickly and led Cameron away for a private chat.

"So," Thompkins started, settling a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Kidnappings, FBI agents, scaling mountains. Is this normal for you police detectives?"

"I'm really a Case Consultant for Major Crimes," Blair said, holding his hand up as if to stop the conversation before it got headed in the wrong direction. "I do a lot of psych profiling, figuring out the bad guy' brain kinda thing. Once you know who you're dealing with, then you get a better idea of what they're capable of..." He was just warming to his subject when Jim returned and he saw Danni pass a very warm, almost smoldering, look to his partner. "It's a rather complicated job."

"So this is more action than you're used to, huh?" Danni said casually, then held out a hand for Jim to help her up. She smiled politely to Sandburg as she stood up next to the tall detective. "So, Jim, I'll bet this is just a typical vacation for you."

"There's so much to consider when you're working a case. You really have to get inside the criminal's mind..." As the pair walked away, Naomi joined her son, sitting on the edge of the mountain while he just lay there talking. She placed a loving hand on his forehead and smiled.

"She's not listening, Blair."

"I knew that. It just sounded good."

She smiled and set her hand on his cheek. "Well, then. Hate to waste a perfectly good explanation. You can explain your new job to me."

"I'm a cop, Mom." He mentally winced as he said it.

She nodded.

Afraid that his mother was in shock or denial or both, he elaborated slightly. "I'm a regular, ordinary cop, even though my function in the department may be somewhat different from the other regular detectives, what I do is no less important. You're not gonna talk me out of it. I've already got my badge, and desk, and partner, now."

"You're wrong."

He cocked his head to one side, wrinkling his brow at her. "What do you mean?"

"You had a desk and a partner before. And even with a badge, you're not an ordinary cop. You're an exceptional cop." She helped him sit up, giving him a loving hug.

"Thanks, Naomi."

"Of course," she started, standing up over him. "You have an exceptional mother. Now, Emily is dying to talk to you. Come on, you can sit next to her in the helicopter."

Looking skyward, Blair smiled, then turned and walked after his mother.

Jim, Blair, and the three women flew back to the valley aboard the helicopter. The FBI agents, including Cameron, brought the gang of kidnappers down from Sentinel Rock on foot, since the aircraft wasn't big enough to carry all of them. Once back in the clearing where the vehicles had been parked, the agents loaded their prisoners into several secure vans and headed out of the park quietly. Jim had merely nodded to Agent Cameron, then turned to find Danni, who was being taken to a local hospital for treatment and probably an overnight stay.

"So?" he said, taking her hand. "I'll be there tomorrow afternoon to pick you up. Sound okay?"

She nodded and smiled, then looked over at Dr. Mesgar and Blair engaged in an animated conversation. "You better watch your partner, Aunt Emily will bend his ear with all sorts of scientific mumbo-jumbo."

"Aunt Emily?" he asked, but only received a smile as the paramedics shut the doors and headed out. Jim walked towards a Jeep, leaning against it as his partner joined him. "So, Chief, how'd you know Holden wasn't coming to help us?"

Blair smiled a little smugly as he recalled his vivid dreams. "It's a Shaman thing."

Jim cocked his head quizzically. "A Shaman thing? Like knowing we'd end up on top of that mountain? Sentinel Rock?"

Blair laughed. "Nah, man, I had no idea what that place was until Danni told us. But the synchronicity is just too perfect, don't you think?"

"I'll take your word for it," Jim answered. "Some vacation. Are you having fun yet?"

"Yeah, man. How about you?"

Jim smiled, crossing his arms over his chest and inhaling deeply. "I'm working on it, Chief. Cameron said the rangers found the other campers -- Danni had something to do with it, but we'll have to wait till tomorrow to find out all the details."

"Speaking of Cameron," Blair said, unconsciously bouncing. "I've been meaning to ask you since Simon's high school reunion. Why do you have the FBI on speed-dial?"

The large man chuckled, then playfully patted his partner on the cheek. "With you around, Sandburg, I can't take too many precautions."

"Okay, so what's speed-dial zero five?"


Blair pushed a bit further. "Speed-dial zero six?"


Thoroughly convinced his partner was bluffing, Blair laughed. "Speed-dial zero seven is -- like -- the President, right?"

Jim smiled, handed his partner his phone, and walked away.

"Am I right?"

Heh heh heh heh...

"Pound -- zero -- seven." It's ringing.

"Please enter your Security Identification Number, followed by the number sign..."

~ Finis ~

E-mail the author of this story, Eddie, at wnnepooh@erols.com
Read Eddie's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Wnnepooh's FanFic Grotto
Story Concept by: Eddie (See above) and Renae... Stories written by Renae may be found at Guide Posts
The map of Yosemite National Park in Act I and Photograph of Sentinel Rock were provided by Wnnepooh
Please visit our Virtual Season 5 Staff Page to learn more about the hard-working behind-the-scenes crew responsible for bringing you this episode
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
NEXT WEEK on THE SENTINEL: Donut Run (11/10/99, FPP-524) by Captain Outrageous and Wildeskind
    Blair's first day on the job is fraught with danger when he's assigned a task routinely undertaken by every new detective in Major Crime: The Donut Run.

If you experience any problems with this page, please contact The Pagemaster.
This page last updated 2/2/01.