Author's note: This is a sequel to 'The Maze', which is a Sentinel/MacGyver crossover. You may want to read that one first, though I think you can still enjoy this one if you haven't. I do want to extend my thanks to: Sharon, for all her support and info from Night Train (which I haven't seen); Zadra, for various discussions and help through writer's block; Merry, for her suggestions; and Tonya, for posting it and correcting all my grammar and spelling errors (dirty job, but someone has to do it ) . If there are any left, they are all my fault. Please send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org Enjoy the ride.
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine. I'm borrowing them out of deep reverence, affection and respect. I will accept only personal fulfillment, and no monetary gain. If you do sue, you will not get much, and I will send over my Black Lab mix, who will stare at you pathetically for hours.
Rated PG-13, mostly for language.
C. L. Combs
Blair Sandburg slammed his Volvo's door, then raced to the crowd of people forming around a police line. It had been five minutes since he had learned from Rhonda that Jim was in trouble, and he feared for his friend. Flashing his ID to the patrolmen guarding the line, Blair swiftly pulled up the tape and ducked under it. He spotted Taggart's large 'Bomb Squad' jacket, and heard Captain Bank's voice. He dashed around the various squad cars to reach them.
Simon Banks noticed Blair's approach and sighed. How the hell was he going to explain this situation to Sandburg when he didn't understand what was going on himself?
Blair slipped in beside Taggart and Brown, and breathlessly asked, "What's going on? Is Jim okay? What happened?"
Reluctantly, Simon filled in the young observer. "What we have so far, is that Jim had picked up some lunch at the burger place around the corner." Blair nodded. It was one of Jim's favorite places. "Witnesses say that he suddenly went crazy. He shoved the food on the floor and ran out of the building. Two patrolmen approached him. He knocked them both down and ran into that alley over there. He then shot at the patrolmen. I even tried to walk over and talk with him. He shot at me the minute I spoke. Now there are SWAT teams scattered about the various buildings, but," Simon cleared his throat, "no one can get a clear shot."
"A clear shot?" Blair repeated incredulously. Taggart gently laid a hand on Blair's back as he absorbed the implications. "You mean, they are trying to KILL him?"
"Not necessarily kill him," Simon struggled to explain. "Just trying to keep him from hurting anyone."
"This is Jim, Simon. He's as solid as a rock. One of the good guys." Blair's voice broke when he caught sight of a black-clad officer with a rifle slipping around the cars. "People like Jim don't just suddenly go crazy and shoot people without a reason."
"Blair, he won't even let me get close, let alone listen to me."
Blair stared down the street to the alley where his friend was located. There had to be something he could do, some way he could help. Jim would never give up on him. Now it was Blair's turn to be there for Jim.
The minute Simon spoke? Hmmm. "Let me try."
"No!" Simon immediately rejected the idea. "He could kill you, Blair."
"He may listen to me. I listened to him when I was strung out on Golden. I might be able to reach him." Blair silently pleaded with his eyes, hoping the Captain would realize that where a good friend had failed, perhaps the guide could get through.
Taggart and Brown traded looks. They could understand Blair wanting to try, especially since Jim had saved him during the Golden incident. Whether it would work, or if Simon would even allow the young man to attempt it, was another question.
Simon stared at Sandburg, thinking hard. Trying to get an older, stronger, stubborn, impatient sentinel to try new ideas could not be an easy task. Yet Blair had shown the patience and skill to excel at it. Plus, Jim had grown increasingly protective of his partner. Simon honestly did not believe Jim Ellison capable of harming Blair Sandburg. Then again, he never thought Jim would pull a stunt like this, either. Simon took a deep breath, then answered, "Okay, you can try. Under ONE condition..."
Sights. Sounds. Textures. Smells. Tastes. They roared over, around, and through him, ripping to his very soul. Logical thought had ceased. It was easier here, in the quiet, dark place. The aggravating presence that had grated on his already raw being was gone. The hard, cold object that he had thought would help only pierced his head with its blasting noise, filled his nose with a burning odor, and hurt his hand. It was now gone, lost in the swirling eddies. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to make it stop. Someone, please, make it stop...
Blair took a deep breath as he left the safety of the patrol cars, and walked towards the troubled man who could shoot him at any moment. How do I get myself into these things? But how could I not try? Jim's more than a friend. He's the closest thing I ever had to a brother. I can't lose him, not like this.
Remembering Simon's words, Blair tried to walk as slowly and as quietly as possible. The only explanation that made any sense was that Jim had lost control of one of his senses, most likely hearing. Memories of Jim's low tolerance for any sound after getting his ears cleaned supported his theory. If Jim had trouble with a pen scribbling, what would voices, particularly loud ones, be like? However, the only way to prove his theory was to get close to Jim. Which would require making a certain amount of noise. Which could be fatal.
"NO!" Blair told himself angrily. "Jim would never hurt me intentionally. I hope. Besides, I just have to get close. " Blair fingered the syringe in his pocket. The EMT had assured him that it would knock Jim out for hours. Blair was hoping for just long enough to defuse the situation. "If we could just get him to a hospital, maybe we can figure out what is going on."
Judging himself to be about halfway to the alley, Blair carefully turned off the mike Simon insisted he wear. He didn't want everyone else to hear him talking to Jim well outside the range of a normal person. "Jim," he barely murmured. "Helps on the way. But I have to make a bit of noise to reach you. Just hang on. I only want to help. Let me help you."
Slowly, he turned his head. Somewhere in the painful swirl was a soft voice. A familiar voice. A voice that his very core recognized as one to be trusted. A word drifted past him. Guide. It was his Guide. He just had to hang on.
Blair had reached the alley between the buildings. He carefully turned the mike back on, wondering if Simon was mad about the break in communication. Allowing his eyes to adjust to the shadows, Blair discerned a huddled figure slowly rocking by a dumpster. Jim's eyes were closed tight, arms wrapped over his head so that the sides of his arms covered his ears. Was it more than hearing? Had Jim lost control of his sight as well? Hell, this looks worse than even the bout with cold medicine. A brief memory of Jim slamming him into a wall that time brushed his memory before Blair could shove it away.
"Jim, can you hear me?" Blair asked in a soft whisper.
"Make it stop," pleaded his friend. The sheer pain and anguish in that soft voice cut through Blair. What the hell was happening?!?
Closer now, Blair could hear Jim's fast, panicked breathing. Oh man, his friend, the rock, was scared out of his mind. In his calmest voice, Blair commanded, "Jim, take a deep breath." No response. "Please, Jim, just one." As Blair watched, Jim took a deep breath, then another one. "That's good."
Blair took another step closer. Jim abruptly sprang to his feet, turning away from Blair and covering his ears. Oh, hell. "Easy, Jim, easy. I just want to help." Jim was shaking. "Trust me. I can help."
"Make it stop," came the soft plead again.
"I can make it stop. Just let me get close."
Jim slowly turned back, weaving. Blair noticed that he didn't have his gun. Probably couldn't handle the noise.
Blair carefully inched closer, hoping Jim could handle it. In this state, what did Blair's heart sound like to him? His breathing? "That's good, man. Take it easy, now."
Jim continued to sway, but attempted to open his eyes. He seemed to focus on Blair for a moment, then instantly shut them again. A soft moan of pain escaped from his lips.
"Easy, Jim. Just let me touch you. It will hurt, but it will make it stop."
"Please, make it stop." Jim didn't move as Blair approached, slowly pulling the syringe from his pocket.
Suddenly, a hard strike hit Blair in the back, throwing him into Jim. Blair had barely registered the loud crack, or the prick in his leg, when consciousness left him.
Danger! Ignoring the intense pain caused by hitting the ground, he rolled with his Guide across the rough surface until they were behind the smelly metal container. Instinct cried for him to escape, to take the limp form in his arms to someplace safer. His foot hung over a drop, the edge sharp against his ankle. An escape. Crouching behind the sheltering metal, he gently lifted the injured guide close to his chest. The round, hard head rolled to the hollow of his neck, the warm breath on his skin reassuring. Careful of the precious weight, he slipped down into the hole, and through a passage at the bottom.
Phoenix Foundation, CA
MacGyver carefully read through the various reports. The DXS had asked for Phoenix's help on the case, and Mac could see why. He didn't like it at all. Four men, all decorated former Army officers, had made suicidal assignation attempts on various international government officials in the past five months. One would think a militia had gone wild, except that none of the four men had shown any evidence of militia leanings before. In fact, the third one had by all accounts been a loving, devoted family man with three daughters. The eldest, a 13-year-old with big blue eyes, had begged Mac to find out what had happened to her father.
Quietly, he reviewed the facts. Four men, in their mid to late 30's, still in prime condition. All had overseas experience. All had disappeared a month before the assignation attempt. Three had been killed during the attempt. One had been found dead afterwards. The girlfriend of the last said he had suddenly became confused, and while she was trying to help him, she was shot. All four men had trace elements of an unknown drug in their bodies. The best guess from the Phoenix lab was that it left the victims confused and easily manipulated. No, MacGyver didn't like this at all. He didn't even know where to start.
A tapping cane preceded Pete Thornton into MacGyver's office. He paused near the door, knowing he was carrying bad news.
"What's up, Pete?"
"We believe the group you're working on has made an attempted kidnapping on another man.
"Nobody can confirm if it was successful. He is a police detective. According to the initial reports, he went crazy and holed up in an alley. A police observer was sent in to try to talk to him. An outsider bashed in the head of a SWAT sniper, then shot the observer. Both have disappeared."
"Where?" Mac rubbed his eyes. Here we go again. He missed the look of concern pass over Pete's face.
"Cascade, WA." Pete paused, knowing his friend would guess the rest.
MacGyver froze. He slowly lifted his head. "James Ellison fits the profile."
Pete nodded his head.
"Blair Sandburg was the one sent in to talk with him." That was a statement of fact. Blair would be the logical choice.
Pete again nodded. He knew MacGyver had taken an interest in the young man.
"Does anyone know how badly he was wounded?"
Mac stood up. "Tell Jack to prepare the plane. I'm going to Cascade."
MacGyver easily found Joel Taggart on the fifth floor of Cascade General. By the time he and Jack Dalton had landed in Cascade, MacGyver had received word that Blair Sandburg had been found. Noting his friend was at ease, MacGyver guessed the young man was not in danger. "Hi Joel."
Joel Taggart turned and smiled in surprise. "Hi, Mac. What are you doing here?"
"Heard about Ellison, and Sandburg being shot. How badly was Blair hit?"
Joel's smile turned grim. "He's okay. Thankfully, Banks made him put on a vest before approaching Ellison. We thought he might shoot Blair. Instead, Jim seemed to be listening to him. None of us counted on a third party."
Mac glanced around the hospital corridor. "What are Blair's injuries?"
"Mostly sore and groggy. His left shoulder is badly bruised from the impact. His shoulder bone might even be cracked. Plus, when the bullet hit him, we think the tranquilizer for Ellison was accidentally injected into Sandburg. He only woke up twenty minutes ago."
MacGyver sighed in relief. He had been worried about the young man. "Joel, this might be tied in with a case Phoenix is investigating. Can you tell me what happened?"
Taggart reported everything they knew. "It was horrible, Mac. Jim sounded like he was in agony, pleading with Blair to make it stop."
"We don't know. Before Blair could tranquilize him, he was shot and all hell broke lose. From what we can piece together, Jim picked him up, and slipped through the basement of a nearby building. The search teams found Blair over a mile away in a stairwell. He was under some boxes, with an old tarp tucked around him and some rags under his head."
"Sounds like Ellison hid him away, maybe to protect him," MacGyver thought out loud. Even semi-incoherent, Jim was still taking care of Blair. Did that have anything to do with what Mac suspected of the pair?
Before he could ask Joel any more questions, a rumpled figure exited the room across from them. A doctor followed him out. "Mr. Sandburg, we want to run a few more tests. And you should be wearing that sling. "
"Sorry, doc, " Blair waved his right hand negatively in the air, "I've got a friend who needs me out there." Blair smiled slightly in greeting when he spotted MacGyver, "Oh, hi Mac."
"Hi, Blair." Mac stood up to follow as Blair continued walking towards the elevator.
"It's okay, doc. We'll keep an eye on him." Taggart hastily assured the man as he tried to keep up.
Once in the elevator, Joel asked, "Blair, would you like me to take you home?"
"No way," Blair replied with a shake of his head. Mac could read the determination in the young man's face and posture. "Not unless you tell me Jim is there."
Joel sighed. "No Blair, we don't know where he is."
"Then I've got to look for him."
"Jim's in trouble, Joel, and he needs my help." Blair continued to watch the floor numbers flash by. MacGyver pondered his words, and began to wonder.
When the three exited the elevator, Simon was in a heated discussion with two men. MacGyver recognized them as the DXS officers who were working the case. Blair and Joel immediately starting walking towards the captain.
"James Ellison is my best detective and a personal friend. I am not backing off until I know what happened to him!"
"Captain Banks," the younger man announced arrogantly, "This is our case, it involves national security, and it is no longer your concern."
MacGyver shook his head. Ralston didn't have much diplomacy.
"What are you talking about?" Blair asked in confusion. He was beginning to have a lot of sympathy for Alice at the tea party. " Of course Jim is our concern. "
The two agents turned to him. "And you are...?" the older one asked, snidely. MacGyver frowned. He never did like Cromwell much.
"Blair Sandburg. You know, the one who got shot."
"Oh yeah," Ralston drawled, "the observer. Guess you will just have to do without your roommate."
Anger flashed across Blair's eyes at the insinuations. Before it could go farther, MacGyver quietly injected, "He and Banks are in, unless you don't want help from the Phoenix Foundation."
Both agents turned to MacGyver in surprise. "MacGyver, what are you doing here?" Cromwell asked.
"Ellison and Sandburg are friends of mine. In fact," Mac gave Blair an encouraging smile, "I'm still trying to recruit this guy for Phoenix." Blair faintly returned the smile. The Phoenix Foundation had sent him an offer last month, which he had turned down.
The two agents, who had dismissed the young man earlier as nothing impressive, studied him again. He still didn't look like much, but if the legendary MacGyver vouched for him...
"Okay, they can work your end of it. We need to make a report." They turned and stormed out.
Banks turned, confusion and anger still on his face. "MacGyver, what is this all about?"
MacGyver sighed, and tried to think of a way to break the news. "Jim fits the profile of victims used by a group Phoenix and the DXS are investigating. He could be in serious danger, and there isn't much to go on."
Before Simon could ask another question, Jack Dalton walked up. He waved back to the lobby windows where he had been waiting. "Mac, there are several reporters and camera crews pulling up. It sounds like they caught wind of what happened.
"Oh hell," Blair sighed, rubbing his face.
He looked so tired and vulnerable, Simon knew the media would eat him alive. "Let's get you out of here. I want to keep as tight a lid as possible on this."
"What about Steven?" Blair hated the thought of Jim's brother finding out from the radio, or even worse, by having a camera stuck in his face.
"I'll take care of it," Joel volunteered, heading to his car.
"And we'll slip out the back," MacGyver gently laid a hand on Blair's right shoulder, nodding to Jack to lead them to the rental.
"I'll try to deflect the piranhas, and meet you later at the scene," Simon stated, knowing that they would not be able to keep Blair away. He headed for the front doors.
The water felt cold and smooth as it flowed over his fingers. He had become enchanted by the way it felt, and the way the light sparkled off it. Finally, need intruded, and he lifted a palmful up to his lips. The liquid tasted like the wet rocks he could smell around him, but felt cool and soothing to his sore throat. The next palmful he wiped on his hot, throbbing forehead. His head pounded so much, making it so hard to think. He needed something, someone that could help. A memory of a slim body slamming into his flashed across his sore mind. The Guide. His Guide was hurt. But he had to lead the hunters away, to keep his Guide safe.
Drinking another palmful of water, he slowly forced himself to stand, leaning heavily on a tree. The rough bark dug into his arms and hands. His weary body and aching mind begged for sleep. But he had to keep moving. He couldn't let the hunters catch him, or backtrack to his Guide. Eyes struggling to focus, ears still sore and sensitive, he stumbled towards the darkest, quietest direction.
Blair dozed for most of the ride to the alley. The tranquilizer was still making him groggy. Yet the throbbing in his shoulder prevented him from falling too deeply into the sleep his body craved. If this is what it was like for him, what was it like for Jim? What did MacGyver mean about Jim fitting a victim profile? Why was MacGyver here, anyway?
Jack pulled up to the curb, and agreed to keep an eye out for anyone suspicious. Blair and Mac stepped out, and walked into the alley. Blair paused, staring at the dumpster.
"Is this where it happened?" Mac asked.
Blair nodded. But before he could go further, he had to know something. "MacGyver, why are you here? Is it because of your case? Or because you want me to join the Phoenix Foundation?
Mac sighed, wondering how to explain it to the young man without scaring him off. "It has a little to do with the case. It has something to do with potential I see in you." Puzzlement narrowed Blair's eyes. Potential wasn't usually a word he associated with himself. "It mostly has to do with you and Jim being good people, whom I'd like to have as friends. This world needs cops like Ellison, and I'd hate to lose him like this. Plus, I have always tried to protect rare and endangered species. I suspect a sentinel and his partner are rare, and at the moment, very endangered."
Blair nearly stopped breathing as he absorbed the last sentence. He raised wide, shocked eyes to meet the brown ones above him. "How...how...how did..."
MacGyver smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I had a few questions after I helped you and Jim last time. Reading your thesis answered most of them."
Worry filled Blair's tired eyes. Memories of Lee Bracket still haunted him. "What do you plan to do about it?"
Mac's smiled deepened reassuringly, "Nothing. Except help you guys if and when you need it."
"Is that why I got the job offer from Phoenix?"
"No. I read the thesis because we were considering the offer." Mac began to realize the depth of uncertainty hidden within the outwardly confident young scientist.
Blair studied MacGyver for a few moments. Other than Simon and Lee Bracket, no one else knew. Yet, Blair's instincts said trust him, that he will need all the help he could get to save Jim. Blair took a deep breath, and plunged into the important matter at hand. "Okay, who are these guys, and why would they want Jim?"
MacGyver quickly explained all he knew. Blair's worry increased exponentially. "I suspect the drug found in the other victims may have been used on Jim. But I don't understand his reaction."
Blair sighed, and pressed the bridge of his nose. "Jim doesn't react normally to medication. Non-drowsy cold medicines send his senses into overdrive. Pain relievers and sedatives wear off quickly. I've been worried about how he would react to surgery, or even a root canal."
"Have you done any tests?"
Blair smiled faintly, "You have any idea how hard it is to get Jim to agree to a test?"
Mac chuckled. No, James Ellison did not strike him as the ideal guinea pig.
"Hey, Sandburg!" Blair and MacGyver turned to see Brown and Rafe approach.
A few minutes later, Blair studied the stairwell where Jim had left him. Rafe and Brown were quietly talking with MacGyver behind him. However, Blair knew this was a puzzle only he could solve. He closed his eyes. "Think, Sandburg," he berated himself, "You're the anthropologist. If you can get into Jim's mind, maybe you can figure out where he might be." Apparently, the kidnappers hadn't planned on Jim reacting the way he did, or else the whole police-shoot-out-in-the-alley' wouldn't have happened. Which isn't surprising, considering Jim's track record with drugs. So what did it do? Remembering Jim's reactions, it seemed like the cold medicine deal, only greatly magnified. What would such a surge of input do to a sentinel? Just a minute amount of Golden overloaded Jim's sight. How could Jim handle it if this drug affected more than one sense? He couldn't. Make it stop. Jim's agonized plea was painful to remember.
Yet, Jim had been listening to him, was even letting him approach before the rifle shot. Somewhere, deep within, Jim had in some way connected with him. Was it their friendship, or the Guide thing? What ever it was, it was strong enough for Jim to get through to Blair on Golden. Did that bond somehow push through Jim's current sensory surge?
Blair unconsciously gripped the upper arm of his throbbing shoulder. So, what happened after the rifle shot? Blair quietly thought of the little he knew about sentinels and their partners. Mostly, the old stories simply commented that sentinels needed a partner to cover their backs. Not much help. So Blair thought on his and Jim's relationship. It seemed that Jim had grown increasingly protective of him over the past year. Blair had simply dismissed it as a result of the close calls he had had, and Jim feeling responsible. But what if it was more than that? Were sentinels genetically programmed to protect their guides? A sentinel's ability to function depended upon help from the guide. Did that need translate into an instinct to not only listen to the guide, but to keep the guide alive?
Again studying the stairwell, Blair realized that it would represent a hiding place to a instinct-driven sentinel, a place to keep his injured guide safe. But why did the sentinel leave? That seemed so out of character. A sudden voice made Blair jump. Turning, he discovered Simon had joined the others. Then it dawned on him. The sentinel and his injured guide were in danger and being chased, both by the police and perhaps the group MacGyver was after. It didn't matter that one of the groups was friendly; Jim's mind would have still been in shock from the sensory overload, and could not have discerned the difference. Nor could Jim have stayed ahead of both groups and carried him, too. So the sentinel hid the guide the best he could, and led the chase away. Damn. If he hadn't been unconscious, he might have been able to help Jim in sentinel mode decide who was friendly, and who was not.
So where is Jim now? He hadn't been found by the police, and there was no evidence of a struggle here. Where would a sensory-overloaded, instinct-driven sentinel go? Sensory overload...
Blair noticed the trees barely poking over another building. His mind working, he started walking towards them. MacGyver noticed, and the rest quietly followed him. Soon, Blair found himself looking into the woods on the outskirts of Cascade. The setting sun deepened the shadows within.
Simon gently laid a hand on his good shoulder. "What is it?"
"Jim was overloaded, working on instinct," Blair stated quietly. "There was danger, I was hurt, and we were being chased. He tucked me away somewhere safe, and led the hunt away."
MacGyver appear on the other side. "Thus, the forest would seem to him to be a quiet refuge."
Darkness had fallen long ago. The hunters were no longer chasing him. Curling up in the smooth dirt under a protective bush, the weary and hurting sentinel fell asleep.
The sun was an orange glow through the trees when Blair stepped out of his car in the Cascade National Forest. Somewhere out there was his friend and sentinel, and Blair had to find him. He took a final sip of coffee, trying to shake the lingering effects of the pain-killer Simon had forced on him. Last night the captain had insisted that Blair go home, eat, and get some sleep, in spite of Blair's desire to continue the search for Jim in the growing darkness. He had even arranged for Rafe to sleep on the couch at the loft. Thankfully, living with a sentinel had given Blair lots of practice in slipping soundlessly out of his home. The same sentinel he had failed yesterday, by stupidly injecting himself with the tranquilizer. Damn.
Blair unthinkingly reached down for his small pack, and softly cried out in pain. Maybe his shoulder bone was cracked, like the doctor suspected.
"Need some help with that?"
Blair jumped and turned around. MacGyver was standing there, his own fully loaded backpack on. "How...?" Blair started to question.
A short laugh brought his attention to Mac's friend Dalton, leaning on their car across the street. "Give it up, kid. Mac's got your number." When MacGyver had pulled Jack out of bed at an ungodly hour, Jack had asked why. 'Because that kid is too much like me. He and Ellison are tight, and if it was a good friend of mine out there, I'd be ready to go at the crack of dawn.' Mac had been right.
Mac finished pulling the pack out of the car, and held it out for Blair. He knew nothing was going to stop the kid, so he might as well tag along and keep an eye on him.
Blair quietly sighed, shut the door, and took the pack. At least Mac wasn't trying to stop him like Simon would. He wasn't sure he had the energy to waste convincing the captain otherwise.
In fact, Mac was smiling at him encouragingly. "I think I saw a print over here last night. Might be a good place to start."
Blair smiled back, and swung his pack over his good shoulder. "Then lets make tracks."
Man, his head hurt. Must have been some party last night. He could still hear the beat of Blair's loud music. Ellison opened his aching eyes. Slowly, they focused on a black oval face with huge eyes. Jim jerked away, and felt numerous stabs into his back. Jim jerked forward and down, planting his face into the dirt. Dirt? Fighting his confused panic, he took a couple deep, calming breaths. The pounding drums dropped to a woodpecker's tapping. Carefully, he opened his eyes again. The alien creature was an ant, trudging merrily in the dirt across from him. Turning his head, he realized the knives were really branches from the bush he was under. Ant? Bush? Where the hell was he?
Gingerly, he crawled out from under the bush, feeling every prick through his shirt as if they were pins. Nausea joined the pounding head as he moved. Once out, he sat cross-legged, gently rubbing his forehead in an attempt to ease the headache. Smelling the vegetation, Jim surmised he was camping. But why had his buddies let him sleep in the dirt? Still having trouble focusing his eyes, Jim surveyed his surroundings. There were no tents, no campfire, no trail. Only underbrush, and a small creek running nearby.
Jim attempted to search his aching mind. The sudden realization that he didn't have a clue where he was or how he got there sent him retching into the bushes. Only, there really wasn't anything in his stomach to come up. Jim again laid in the dirt, staring up into the leaf canopy above him. Was he in an accident? Between the memory loss, the painful head and the nausea, he wasn't going to rule out head injury. Closing his eyes, he tried to listen for traffic, or anything that would point to civilization. Like his sight, his hearing seemed to fade in and out, but was only picking up forest sounds. Some faint memory tried to work its way to the surface, but Jim's head pounded too much to let it past.
With a groan, he rolled onto his front, and crawled to the creek. He scooped up the water, washing off the dirt from his face and hands. The cold water eased the headache a fraction. Scooping up more of the clear mountain water, he drank, surprised at the array of tastes it contained. He glanced around in confusion. What he really needed was Blair here to do his job, to explain why all his senses were going haywire. Suddenly, the memory of a rifle crack and Blair's body slamming into him crashed through his mind. Jim instantly shot up, then regretted the action. After a few minutes, the pain and nausea resided, and Jim tried to remember more. The pounding prevented him from remembering who was shooting at them, where it happened, or even why. Only the brief moment of the shot stayed with him. Oh God, was Blair alive? Another faint memory of carrying Blair floated past the pain. Yes, Blair had been alive, but they were being chased. Where was Blair now? Was he still alive? Damn it, he had to find him. Blair might need medical attention. Again, Jim tried to focus his hearing, to search for a heartbeat. It was useless. Whatever injury Jim had sustained, it was playing havoc on his control. But that no longer mattered. He had to find his partner. Wobbling to his feet, Jim forced them forward.
Simon paced around his office, still bellowing at Rafe. "How the HELL did you, an experienced police detective, allow a wet-behind-the-ears grad student to sneak out? An INJURED, GROGGY student at that!" Rafe tried to shrink into a smaller size. He had long given up trying to explain to his captain that he never expected Blair to take off, and never heard him leave. Brown and Taggart were standing nearby, wincing in sympathy and trying to pull away from the line of fire unnoticed. The only one who seemed to be enjoying himself was Jack Dalton, who sat in a corner and tried hard not to laugh. He suspected his merriment would not be appreciated.
"Do you realize, we have NO IDEA where Sandburg is? What if that group after Jim finds him?"
Jack loudly cleared his throat. As Simon angrily swung around, Jack removed all amusement from his face, and explained, "We should know in about an hour how they are doing. Mac said he'd report in."
Rafe looked relieved. Simon struggled to switch gears. "HOW!"
Jack shrugged. "Mac's phone has a satellite up-link."
Simon stared. Taggart chuckled. "Simon, Mac is a electronics whiz in addition to being a bomb expert. You'd be surprised at what he has and knows about."
"Great," Simon threw up his hands, "I've got two intellectual geniuses tromping through the woods after an expert survivalist, who is also wanted by an international hit squad."
"MacGyver is also a wilderness survival expert. I wouldn't worry too much about him, or young Sandburg." An older man, carrying a white cane and holding a young man's arm, walked into Bank's office. Jack's face softened, and he immediately stood up. "Hi Pete." He walked over, and took over from Pete's assistant. The cops in the room all looked at each other. Simon wasn't quite sure what to make of the newcomer.
Jack smiled, and made introductions. "Pete, at 1:00 is Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade PD and Jim Ellison's supervisor. Captain, this is Pete Thornton, Director of the Phoenix Foundation."
Pete confidently extended his hand out to Simon, who grasped it in a firm shake. "MacGyver has told me about you, Captain. I wish we were meeting under more pleasant circumstances."
Simon sighed. "So do I."
Jack completed the round of introductions.
Between MacGyver's wilderness knowledge and Sandburg's knowledge of sentinels, they had been able to decipher Jim's path. It was not a straight one, but it did not go in circles. "Jim's subconsciously heading for the quietest spot he can find," Blair theorized.
More worrisome was the evidence that Jim had been followed. Normally, Blair wouldn't be concerned, having faith that his friend would easily evade the searchers. However, just how well a sensory overloaded Jim would do, Blair honestly did not know. He pushed back the fear that his friend may have already been captured.
During their search, Sandburg explained many of his sentinel theories to the interested MacGyver. It was gratifying to have someone to discuss it with, who understood scientific thinking and didn't have such a personal interest in the subject. "I'm just surprised a group like this missed picking Jim up immediately, and let it get so out of hand," Blair sighed, wincing when a branch hit his sore shoulder.
MacGyver paused, picking up the faint trace of a print on the other side of a boulder. "I've got a theory about that. From what we know about the drug, it may normally confuse a person's mind by sending their various senses out of control. That would allow them to be easily manipulated." Mac pulled back a limb, then held it to make sure it didn't hit Blair. "Only with Ellison, this group would have been unable to take control."
Blair surveyed the area, absently commenting, "Because Jim's senses were overloaded."
MacGyver turned and shook his head. "No, because you weren't there."
Stopping, Blair shot him a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
MacGyver tilted his head slightly, studying Blair as he explained. "A sentinel is genetically programmed to listen to his guide. Jim, both consciously and subconsciously, connects to you as being that guide."
Blair shrugged. "Yeah, I'm the dumb idiot that Jim had to make due with."
MacGyver shook his head. "No, or else Jim would have connected with someone he already knew. Instead, he went seeking answers, and found you."
Puzzlement still filled Blair's eyes. "But that's just because I knew about sentinels."
Mac gave him a gentle smile. "Yeah, but why didn't Jim's senses stay heightened after his time in Peru? Or come back within a year or two, after he became a cop? There is really no reason why it took five years for them to heighten again. Except that Jim's future guide wouldn't have been ready until then."
Blair stared at him wide-eyed. Apparently, none of this line of reasoning had ever occurred to him. Mac continued to smile. The kid didn't have a clue that he might be just as unique as the sentinel he was studying.
Finally, Blair blinked, and shook his head. He would have to think about that one. "Okay, then what did you mean about my absence hindering Jim's capture?"
Mac turned to walk down the stream bank. "Perhaps the other victims simply followed whatever voice they heard, needing to be trained for a month to follow just that voice. Through genetic programming and recent conditioning, Jim is already trained to listen to your voice. So he didn't react the way they thought, because he wouldn't respond to them. Remember, he wouldn't even respond to Captain Banks, whom he would normally recognize and listen to. Simon wasn't you, and neither was any of that group. Most likely, only another with guide potential would have a prayer of reaching Jim. Even then, I suspect they would have a hard time, since he has connected with you."
Thinking hard, Blair tried to absorb the different perspective, and how it would effect his friend. "So, if these guys do catch up with Jim, there's a good chance he still won't obey them, no matter what they do." Blair suddenly stopped. "What will they do to Jim if he doesn't follow their plans?"
Mac's face hardened with concern. "Let's just try to reach Jim first."
Cold realization hit Blair's stomach. Oh God, they'll kill him. Swallowing hard, Blair quickly caught up with MacGyver. They couldn't let that happen.
Jim stumbled, then caught himself on a tree trunk. Leaning into the tree, Jim closed his eyes and tried to recoup. His head continued to pound, while each of his senses would excruciatingly heighten, and then fade out. Was he going in the right direction? Hell, he wasn't even sure which was the right direction. Following a creek downhill was part of his training, or at least he thought so. His hold on coherency was shaky at best. Yet, every time Jim was ready to give up and curl into a ball, the memory of Blair being shot would float to the surface. He couldn't give up. His young partner may need him.
Details were still so fuzzy. Jim's only memory to Blair's location was a vague wisp of himself tucking a tarp around his unconscious friend. Had they been camping? Or down by the docks? How bad were Blair's injuries? The fruitless effort to search his mind was only increasing the headache.
The clicking of guns suddenly made his headache the least of his concerns. Jim discovered he was the center of attention of a woman and two men, all aiming guns at him. Stiffening, he slowly raised his hands.
"Good boy. It's about time you did what you are suppose to do." An older man with a crippled arm glared at him. Jim was confused. The man did not look at all familiar. "Goldie, give him a half dose, and let's get back on track."
As a woman approached him with a syringe, Jim gave the older man the most ferocious glare he could around the headache. "Just tell me what happened to Sandburg."
"Sandburg? Oh, you mean the troublesome kid with the hippie hair and salvation army clothes? Don't know. Haven't seen him since Rodger over there shot him with the SWAT officer's rifle." The man smiled in cruel delight at the confused horror on Jim's face. Then Goldie injected Jim, and he totally lost the little control he had. The world spun around him, sunlight becoming blinding, the summer heat intolerable, the voices unbearable. Escape, escape, escape...
Goldie took a step back, and commanded, "All right, Captain Ellison, you will focus on my voice, and follow me." To her surprise, Jim swung out, hitting her in the face. As she fell, Rodger shot at their victim, only Jim had ducked, slipping into the bushes.
"Go after him!" the leader commanded.
The shot echoed around them. Color drained from Blair's face as he turned in the direction of the sound, and began to run.
"Blair!" Mac shouted. He chased after the younger man, fearful of what the kid might find. Or what may find him.
Pete was comfortably seated in a police van parked in the Cascade National Forest, listening while Dalton and Banks poured over the topo maps covering the search area. They had decided that it was too dangerous for the forest rangers to search for Ellison, since it was probable that an armed and dangerous group was hunting him as well. The county sheriff and his teams were starting to grid search, miffed that another search team was already out. When the sheriff found out that it was Sandburg, he grunted, "Hope the city boy doesn't get shot this time." Banks had angrily returned, "If I remember correctly, it was the 'city boys' who found me, while you insisted on searching the wrong area." Both turned away from each other, and stormed in opposite directions.
Now, the three of them were waiting for Mac's call, and trying to figure out the best way to reach them if they needed help. Another Cascade police van pulled up. Simon stretched, trying not to yawn. "That's probably my men. I'd better check with them."
Pete smiled. "Sounds good. We will keep an ear open for the phone."
After Simon left, Pete turned towards Jack. "What is this Sandburg kid like?"
Jack leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes to give Pete the best description he could from memory. "Well, he's about 5'8", slim, with curly brown hair down to his shoulders. High forehead, small tipped nose, and a pair of extremely expressive blue eyes. Looks like he should be a college student, not teaching classes. Looks even younger when standing with the detectives and Captain Banks, who must all be well above 6'. Strikes me as very passionate, highly intelligent, and extremely stubborn."
"Mac seems taken with him."
Jack smiled. "Yeah, I would say Sandburg is between Lisa Woodrow and Sam on Mac's concern scale."
Pete paused. While MacGyver was always devoted to his friends, Lisa and Mac's son Sam drew out his most protective, parental urges. In age, Blair was only a couple years older than Sam. So Pete was correct in guessing the depth of interest Mac had for the young man. "Captain Banks seems rather concerned about Sandburg, as well."
"So are the rest of his men. From what I've picked up, Blair apparently has become like the little brother following the bigger kids around."
"Mac said Sandburg and Ellison are tight, like brothers. Which is why Mac knew he'd be ready to start searching at the crack of dawn."
Simon walked back in. "Bad news. There's a storm system coming in off the Pacific. Should be hitting in another three hours."
MacGyver found Blair crouched behind a boulder, cautiously looking into the small valley below. Motioning for Mac to stay quiet, Blair waved him over. Joining Blair and looking down, Mac picked out an older man scolding a young man and woman.
"Ellison should be ours by now! We need him for the assignation in Peru next month. He couldn't go far with the extra dosage. Find him, and be quick about it!
Blair clenched his fists, more angry than he had ever been in his life. Jim probably hadn't fully recovered from the first dose. Blair hated to imagine what a second dose was doing to him. What kind of heartless bastard was this?
Next to him, Mac had already realized the answer to that question. Marcus Harding had been a hired assassin and terrorist for decades, until an accident had crippled his right arm. He had never cared if innocence bystanders were killed, as long as the job was done. The danger they and Ellison were in had just skyrocketed.
Below, Harding and his team split up. Mac drew Blair a distance away, and called Dalton.
Escape. Escape. Escape. That one word engulfed his mind. The world around him roared and tore at him, but he was driven by instinct to do one thing. Escape.
Mac closed his eyes as he turned off the phone. Blair, who had listened to Mac's end of the conversation, had picked up on who Harding was. However, judging from Mac's expression, that wasn't the only bad news. "What's up?"
"The DXS just arrived, trying to take over the search. They are currently going head to head with a tough sheriff, who in turn doesn't seem to like Banks or you that much."
Blair chuckled. "Oh, I know who that is. When Simon was abducted by an escaping con a while back, the sheriff sent all his men one way, while Jim insisted they should search another. See, Jim could smell Simon's cigars, but couldn't tell anybody that. The sheriff refused to listen to him, so Jim and I went after Simon by ourselves and rescued him. I doubt that sheriff has forgiven us yet. Especially since he had to call in a rescue helicopter for me, and Banks laid the blame on him."
Blair blushed. "I was shot by a third party trying to get the stolen money."
Shot? Stolen money? Mac shook his head, and decided to leave that story for another time. "In any case, Banks says we have a storm coming in."
All humor immediately left Blair's face. "Oh hell, I don't know if Jim could handle a storm right now. He has enough trouble on a normal day when thunder catches him off guard."
MacGyver grimly responded, "So we better find him quick, which is going to be tricky with Harding's group also searching for him."
Thinking hard, Blair quietly stated, "We need an edge."
"The only edge we got is that we know Jim is a Sentinel..." Mac trailed off as an idea came to him. He quickly grabbed the map from his pack. "So, where does a hurting, hunted, instinct-driven sentinel go?"
Blair dropped to the ground next to him, and also studied the map.
After nearly two hours of steady, fast-paced hiking, MacGyver and Blair had reached an area full of ravines and caves. Mac quietly surveyed the place from their rocky perch. While it was logical that Jim would hide in a quiet cave, the task of finding the correct one was daunting. They were not even sure Jim had made it this far. Rolling his tight shoulders under his backpack, Mac covertly stole a glance at his fellow searcher. Blair looked exhausted, holding his left elbow and staring into the valley. "You ready to take a break?" Mac asked quietly.
Blair shook his head, studying the building clouds. "That storm will be here soon. If we don't find Jim soon, he might not be able to handle it." Blair forced his throbbing shoulder out of his mind, and tried to concentrate on the trail. Carefully, he and MacGyver picked their way down.
The hunters were close. In spite of his confusion, his pain, his exhaustion, he knew they were close. Loose rocks grabbed and bruised his feet through his shoes as he turned in a rough circle, trying to pinpoint their location within the sounds roaring around him. A loud rumble painfully vibrated through his already pounding head. Tripping over the rocks in his path, the sentinel took one step in the wrong direction. The ground gave way, sending him downward with a flow of debris.
Suddenly, Mac grabbed Blair's arm, holding a finger to his lips. Blair immediately froze. Voices floated from just ahead of them. Blair noticed a dark area behind the bushes at their back. Silently, he touched Mac's shoulder, and indicated the hole with his head. The pair slipped past the bushes, and waited.
The young couple after Jim walked past them. "I could have sworn I saw him go down this path... " the woman complained. Mac and Blair glanced at each other. Were they close? Was Jim hiding nearby?
Mac pulled a flashlight out of his pack, and revealed the mouth of a small cave. Blair waited while Mac took a couple steps around the bend. The cave curved into a small main room. There were rocks and branches, but no sentinel. Mac returned, and shook his head at Blair's questioning look. Blair took a deep breath and released it. They had checked several caves in the last half hour, with no success. Yet, something deep within told Blair they were close. They just had to keep searching. A rumble reminded Blair that they'd better hurry.
"Let's go," Mac whispered, tilting his head in the direction the others had just came from. They quietly slipped out of the cave, and continued down the trail.
After traveling about a hundred yards, Blair pointed to another dark area. "I'll check it out." He clicked on his light, and moved between the boulders.
Mac scanned the trail above and below them. How close was Harding's people? Was Jim even in the vicinity? Would Jim be able to stick to the trail, with the steep drop to the side, if he was here? On that thought, Mac noticed a small section of freshly broken dirt on the edge. With dread sinking to the depths of his stomach, Mac cautiously walked across and glanced over. Two feet down was Jim Ellison, flat against the rock face, and clinging tightly to a barely protruding rock. Oh, man. Another glance at the 60 foot drop below Jim sent Mac reeling back. "Oh, man, I hate heights." Taking a couple deep breaths, Mac forced himself to look down at the man below. "Hang on, Ellison. Blair and I will get you up." Mac pulled back and immediately slipped off his backpack. Not wanting to alert any of Harding's people, Mac glanced up the trail and quickly waved Blair over.
All he could do was hold on as tightly as possible. Somehow, he knew he would be lost if he didn't. He was too scared, hurt and confused to do anything else.
"Hang on, Ellison..." The voice barely broke through his roaring senses. While the words had no meaning, it was a voice he could listen to. Not his guide's, but it was a guide. His tension eased a fraction. Help had arrived.
Blair paled at his first glance down. "Oh, man," he muttered. Somewhere, there had to be a God with a wicked sense of irony. Of all of Blair's phobias, heights had to be at the top of the list. Just his luck he would have to rescue his friend looking down that drop. He took a couple deep breaths, then noticed MacGyver was doing the same. Their eyes met. "You, too?" they asked together.
Mac suddenly remembered Jim mentioning Blair's fear of heights. "This is going to be interesting."
Eyes closed, Blair took another deep breath. "This isn't about you. Concentrate on Jim," he muttered to himself. Then he forced himself to lay down on the trail, and look over the edge. Within a moment, MacGyver was beside him. Blair focused on the top of his friend's head. Jim's arms were wrapped tightly around the rock, cheek pressed against it. What kind of sensory hell was he going through? "Jim," he called softly, "I'm here. We are going to help you. But you have to trust us." No response. Could he hear him?
Mac had been studying the situation, trying to ignore the drop. "I think if we hook a hand under each shoulder, we can pull him up." I hope. Jim was heavier than either of them, but maybe together they could lift him. Mac wedged his feet between the rocks on the other side of the trail, and Blair copied his actions.
"We are going to pull you up, Jim, but you have to let us touch you," Blair guided with his gentlest voice. He and Mac reached down, and gripped underneath Jim's arms. Blair fought to space out the pain in his left shoulder. Yet Jim wouldn't let go of the rock. Damn. "It's okay, Jim, just let go. We won't hurt you, we just want to help." The hands relaxed slightly.
"Listen to him, Jim," Mac softly whispered, "We have to get you out of here."
Gradually, the arms loosened. Blair and Mac heaved up and back. Jim even managed to reach up and hold the arms pulling him. Once he was halfway up, Mac shifted his hold to grab onto Jim's belt, and finished the rescue.
Jim sprawled face-down across the dusty trail, eyes still tightly closed. On his knees beside Jim, Blair doubled over, gripping above his left elbow and gritting his teeth to keep from crying out. Hot pain radiated from his injured shoulder, but that was okay. He had Jim back.
Mac, noting Blair's distress, soothingly laid a hand on his good arm, and took Jim's pulse with the other. It was rapid, and Jim was shivering. The clouds above them were boiling dark and angry, dropping the temperature with the rising wind. They needed shelter, fast. "Blair, how deep is that cave you checked out behind us?"
Thunder underlined the urgency of MacGyver's question. Jim was shaking harder now, as Blair leaned back and lifted his head. "Not very. It's more of an overhang than a cave." Blair released his elbow to rub Jim's shoulder, trying to comfort his friend.
"Then let's try to make it to the cave we hid from Harding's people in. It is deep enough to both hide and protect us." Mac leaned over to drape Jim's arm over his left shoulder, allowing Blair to support Jim's weight using his healthy right shoulder.
"Jim, you have to help us here, " Blair softly urged as Mac and he lifted Jim to his feet. Mac was grateful when Jim managed to stand, swaying between them. Yet Blair's voice had betrayed the pain he was fighting, increasing Mac's desire to get both younger men to safety as soon as possible. As rain started to fall, they aided Jim slowly back to the cave.
MacGyver clicked off the satellite phone, and for a moment stared out into the gloomy downpour. He had reached Banks and Thornton, and updated them on the situation. Between the weather and the remoteness of the area, there was little hope of rescue tonight. Blair was too exhausted, and Ellison too incoherent to hike out in the storm. All they could do was stay put and hope Harding's hunting party was also stranded by weather. Turning, Mac walked around the bend to the main cavern. Blair was sitting cross-legged next to Jim, whom earlier they had cleaned up and slipped into Mac's sleeping bag. Pain and worry shone from the young man's eyes as they raised to Mac's.
Mac quietly shook his head. "They can't reach us tonight. Maybe tomorrow when it calms down."
Blair sighed, and took another drink of tea, staring at the tiny fire. He knew that rescue would be nearly impossible, but he had hoped to be wrong.
"How's the shoulder?" Mac asked.
Blair gave him a faint smile. "Better. Thanks for forcing the ibuprofen on me."
Mac returned the smile. "No problem. Glad it helped."
Jim moved restlessly, moaning. Blair gently laid the back of his hand on Jim's forehead. He still felt cold. Were his overloaded senses sending him into shock? Yet Jim settled down at Blair's touch. Was Mac right about Jim's connection to him as Jim's guide? At the moment, Blair didn't care, as long as he could impart some comfort to his friend. He shifted his hand to Jim's shoulder, wondering if Jim could feel it through the sleeping bag.
Mac met Blair's eyes again, and consoled him. "He'll be all right, Blair. He just has to work the drug out of his system."
Blair numbly nodded his head. "I know, I just wish I could have gotten some food or more water down him."
"You're lucky to have coaxed him into drinking as much as you did. We'll try it again when he wakes up."
Blair glanced down at Jim again. He felt so helpless, so incompetent in aiding his sentinel. Did the tribal guides have this much trouble? He looked back at MacGyver. "What now?"
"Well," Mac drawled as he attempted to get comfortable against the rocks, " Why don't you tell me how you got shot by a third party after stolen money while Jim was tracking Simon's cigars."
Blair chuckled at the change in subject. He eased back, trying to find a position that accommodated his injury. "Well, we were providing escort for this convict named Dawson Quinn..."
His body ached deep within from the senses still tearing through him. Yet a gentle touch reached through the painful confusion to his head, easing the agony a fraction. As the touch moved to his shoulder, voices floated towards him. Guides, both his and another, were talking unafraid. The voices were a comforting sound, imparting the precious feeling of safety. The sentinel allowed himself to relax and drift into the darkness, secured in the anchoring presence of his guide.
Simon Banks ignored all the bickering behind him at the ranger station. He was tired of the fighting over jurisdiction. The only thing that mattered to him was that two of his men were in danger, and he could not reach them due to the raging storm before him. That those two were Ellison and Sandburg, who had risked their lives more than once for his own, only increased his frustration. He nearly growled when a person approached him, only to discover Mr. Thornton next to him. The quiet dignity of the man had made quite an impression on Banks, so he restrained his anger.
"Sounds like quite a storm," Pete extended softly.
"Yeah," Simon replied, rubbing his eyes.
"They are all right for the moment, you know."
"I know. It's wondering how long that moment is going to last that worries me."
Man, he was hurting, especially his head. What on earth happened to him? Memory scurried away from his thoughts. Carefully, Jim tried to piece together his situation. He seemed to be in a sleeping bag on something hard. In fact, he was certain he felt a sharp rock or two under him. A faint wisp of smoke wrinkled his nose, then faded away. Cautiously opening his eyes, he discovered his sight fuzzy, but it seemed to be dark. Closing them again, he concentrated on hearing. While sounds faded in and out, he could pick out the heartbeat and breathing of a light sleeper across from him, and the steady beat and deep breathing of a sleeper behind him. Struggling to focus, he suddenly recognized the heartbeat behind him. It was Sandburg's.
With that recognition, the brief memory of Blair being shot sliced through him. Jim jerked upright, then gasped as pain stabbed through his head. Fighting to find the dial to tune it down, Jim held his head, elbows braced on his knees.
A hand laid comfortingly on his shoulder. "Easy, Jim. Everything is all right."
Forcing his eyes to focus, a fuzzy but familiar face floated in front of him. "MacGyver?" he gasped hoarsely. His mouth was so dry.
Mac smiled at him, then picked up a water bottle. "Here. You need some of this."
Jim tried to reach for the bottle, but his eyesight faded and his hand shook. MacGyver helped him hold it while he drank. Leaning back, Mac studied him, and asked, "How do you feel?"
Jim pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Bad. My head hurts too much to think."
MacGyver gently squeezed his shoulder. "Not too surprising. You've had a bad couple of days."
The brief memory of Blair intruded again. Jim slowly lifted his worried eyes to look at Mac. "Blair was shot."
Mac nodded. "But he was wearing a vest. He's okay, his shoulder is just deeply bruised."
Relief flowed over him. Jim rubbed his face again, then turned to look to his left. Blair was sound asleep, head on his pack and wrapped in a space blanket.
Quietly, MacGyver mixed instant soup with water still warm from the fire. The spoon hitting the side of the cup at first hurt Jim's ears, but slowly faded into a soft clink. Mac then passed him the cup. Jim's stomach rolled unpleasantly, and he tried to hand it back. Mac firmly replaced it into his hands. "You need the nourishment, Ellison. You haven't eaten in over 36 hours, we are being hunted, and Blair is hurting too much to help me carry you out." Jim reluctantly sipped, trying to keep his stomach from objecting. It tasted overwhelmingly of salt. After a brief stomach somersault, Jim took another sip. Now he could barely pick out the chicken flavor.
MacGyver watched him drink it while he replaced the pot. Mac figured that using Blair's injury would do the trick.
Jim managed to drink most of the soup before he decided he had enough. Exhaustion and pain pressed heavy against him. Mac took back the cup, suggesting softly, "Why don't you try and get more sleep."
Jim barely nodded as he laid back down.
The hard rain of the previous night had given way to a steady light drizzle. MacGyver scouted around the mouth of the cave and the trail in front of it. Was it worth the risk leaving the relative safety of the cave to get Ellison to medical attention at a more secure location? As miserable as the weather was, Mac had no doubts that Harding's people would be searching for them. Images of their fates if caught inside the cave made up his mind.
Slipping back into the cave, Mac quietly observed Blair catching Jim up to date. Jim, still pale and shaky, seemed to be following Blair's story and slowly drinking his soup. But just the fact he hadn't noticed Mac walk in spoke more of his condition than anything else. Could Ellison handle the ten mile hike to where they could be rescued?
"But why didn't they abduct me right to begin with?" Jim asked softly. His head still pounded, but he didn't think Blair had covered that.
"They expected the drug to have you so confused, they could control you. Only, you didn't listen to them. Mac thinks that as a sentinel, you're already conditioned to follow your guide's voice. I may be the only one who could have reach you in that state." Blair was studying his friend, noting the pain lines around his eyes. He hadn't realized what had just slipped until those eyes narrowed in concern.
"Mac thinks? Did you tell him I'm a sentinel?"
"No, he didn't," Mac quickly interjected. Jim jerked, then looked up in surprise at Mac. "I figured it out on my own from your reactions in the tunnels and Blair's thesis."
Searching his aching mind, Jim remembered Blair mentioning the letter he'd received. "You read his thesis because of the job offer?" MacGyver nodded.
Jim sighed, rubbing his face wearily. He had wondered at the time if Blair was giving up too much to be his guide. Now, it felt like he was spinning out of control into a black hole, dragging Blair and everything else with him.
Blair had never seen his big friend look so sick and vulnerable. "It's okay, Jim. Mac hasn't told anyone."
Jim lifted his head to stare at MacGyver. Mac returned the gaze, responding, "I know what can happen if it gets out. I've seen it with other scientist's work. I have no intention of letting that happen with you and Blair, at least not from my end."
After studying MacGyver for a moment, Jim nodded, and returned to rubbing his head. That strange feeling of trust he had for Mac was still there. He thought he might know why, if only his head would stop hurting so he could remember.
"How are you doing, man?" Blair asked with concern.
Jim tried to smile at him reassuringly, but knew the result was lacking. "I'm better. My senses just keep fading in and out, that's all." That his head pounded and he felt weak through the middle wasn't information he cared to burden Blair with. Though he had the sneaky suspicion he wasn't fooling anyone.
"Do you think you're up for a walk?" Mac asked casually.
Jim again exchanged looks with Mac. Blair had explained enough for Jim to realize how precarious their situation was. There was no way he wanted his partner in the line of fire again. He briefly attempted to listen outside, but failed. "I can walk." he stated.
"Are you sure?" Blair questioned doubtfully. The normally stoic Jim still appeared pretty sick.
"I can walk." Jim restated, and slowly stood up. He swayed, but managed to steady himself before Blair could help. Mac quietly handed him a rain poncho, and studied him as he carefully put it on. Blair's eyes were still large with worry, but he quickly tossed the rest of his gear into his pack. With Mac leading, they left the cave into the wet dawn.
Simon was pacing at the ranger station as the fog shifted to a lighter gray, signaling dawn. While his head said they would soon have his friends back safely, his instincts were warning him that something wasn't right. He couldn't pin it down, but somehow he knew they were still in danger. Maybe it was because he suspected Ellison was sicker than MacGyver dared say.
Jack Dalton walked up the steps. "Worried?"
Banks simply glared, and continued pacing.
"What if I said I have a way to get us closer to them?"
Feet stopping instantly, Simon turned. "How?"
Jack shrugged. "I've found a plane. There is an old air field near their trail out. I can fly us in, pick them up, and have them back to safety before brunch."
"What about the weather?" Simon quizzed.
"Shouldn't be a problem."
"Where did you get a plane out here?"
"Oh, I have friends in the area."
Simon wondered why Dalton's left eye was twitching, but decided to overlook it in favor of doing SOMETHING. He'd had enough inactivity. It was time to find his friends.
Blair was growing to hate rain. First the Dawson Quinn escapade, and now this. The high humidity was causing his rain jacket to stick to his clammy clothes, his clothes to stick to his moist skin. He again checked his friend slogging ahead of him. Jim was walking much slower than normal, head bent and arm tucked around his stomach. It didn't take a genius to know he was still struggling with the aftermath of the sensory overload. But what could he do to ease it? A feeling of uselessness sank deep within Blair, making him even more miserable.
Abruptly, Jim stopped. Blair just barely avoided running into him, as MacGyver turned back, questioning. "I thought I heard a woman's voice," Jim quietly explained, "But it has faded out now."
Mac and Blair exchanged worried looks. Could it be the woman in Harding's group? "We better stay alert," Mac softly stated.
Jim tried to open his hearing as he took another step. Thunder suddenly rolled over them, shooting spikes of pain through his sore head. Jim dropped to his knees, holding his ears. Blair instantly stood in front of him, laying a hand on each shoulder. " Easy, Jim," he softly soothed, "Take a deep breath." Blair could feel Jim shaking under his hands, attempting the breath. "Turn down your hearing as much as you can."
Jim slowly tilted his head, pain lacing his voice. "I can't find the dial. Everything is spinning too fast."
"Just hang on a second. It will pass." I hope.
Blair's voice was calm and steady, but Mac could see the fear and uncertainty in his eyes. Searching the trail, Mac spotted an overgrown turnoff ahead. He closed his eyes, picturing the map he'd memorized that morning in his mind. "I think this is the path for a ghost town nearby," Mac whispered to his companions. "There may be a safe place to rest awhile."
"Can you walk a little further, Jim?" Blair queried. In answer, Jim shakily rose to his feet. Blair carefully positioned Jim's arm around his neck, trying to steady him. MacGyver cautiously lead them through the wet grass, praying the rain was washing away their prints.
A long quarter mile later, the track entered a small group of time-worn buildings. Mac scanned the area, but with the rain he couldn't tell if the place was as abandoned as it looked. "Blair, why don't you two stay here under these trees? I'll scout around, and be back."
Blair, easing Jim onto a large boulder, replied, "Sounds good. Just be careful." Blair was becoming very attached to the older man.
Mac smiled reassuringly into his worried eyes, and slipped into the town.
Jim slowly lifted his head up to study Blair's face. He had heard the strain in his friend's voice. "It's hurting you to support me, isn't it?"
Blair quickly swallowed, and denied, "I'm fine, Jim. Concentrate on yourself."
Jim's face turned grimmer. He knew Blair was lying. "Sandburg, if things get hairy, I want you to get the hell to safety. Don't worry about me."
Blair leaned over to stare his friend in the eye. "After all the trouble I've gone through to find you, I'm not leaving you behind now. It's still about friendship...good or bad, you're not getting rid of me."
Jim sighed. He was too sick to argue. To prove it, another wave of nausea crashed through his stomach. Suddenly, Jim was on his hands and knees, losing what little food Blair had forced him to eat that morning. Midway through, Jim realized Blair's hand was on his shoulder, offering comfort and strength.
"What the hell did I get into?" Simon thought in panic. Buffeted by the convective cells within the storm system, the small plane was being tossed around like a bug in a washer. Simon glanced at the mad pilot in the next seat. Dalton seemed to be in his element, softly humming to himself and smiling.
Simon shook his head. He knew he was in trouble the minute they had arrived at the air strip. Grass was poking through cracks in the runway, and the hanger was falling apart. Obviously, neither had been used for a while. The plane next to the hanger should have sent him racing back to Cascade. The propeller look like it would fall off at any moment, and there were rust holes Simon could see light through. Yet Dalton had declared it 'a beaut', and 'The old girl is just waiting to take us to Mac and your men.' That had reminded him of what Ellison and Sandburg had willing endured for him. His memory had flashed on Sandburg, wearily leaning against a mine shaft wall, bruised face pale, and eyes large with pain and fear. So Simon had taken a deep breath, and stepped into the plane. The seat buckle wouldn't close -- Dalton had banged it a few times against the dash to work the rust loose. Simon didn't even want to think about how they'd nearly clipped a tree on the way out. 'Those pine trees always grow way too fast', Dalton had commented.
The plane took a sudden dip down, sending Simon's stomach to the roof of his mouth. Dalton pulled back on the joystick, chuckling, "This storm still has some kick in it!" The plane quickly leveled out, only to shimmy to the right.
Simon could hear his mother's voice in his head, asking, "Who is more foolish: the fool or the one who follows the fool?" Simon just wanted this ride to be over before he found out the answer.
Gently, Mac eased Ellison down onto an old mattress. The former kitchen in an old community hall had a good roof, sturdy floor, and draft-proof walls, which was more than Mac could say about the rest of the building. It was a good place for Jim to rest and recover.
Pain lines were deeply etched across Jim's pale face as he slowly pulled the wet poncho over his head. The last couple days had brought the sentinel to the edge of his endurance. Knowing he had a few moments before Blair finished securing the door, Jim softly called, "MacGyver?"
Pausing as he pulled his sleeping bag out, Mac turned to him, "Yeah?"
Jim drilled him with his cold blue eyes. "No matter what happens to me, make sure Blair is safe."
Mac's eyes softened. Self-sacrifice for friends was something Mac knew well. "Planned to. Though I'd suspect it would be easier on him to keep you both safe."
Jim felt a small measure of reassurance as he laid back onto the mattress. Mac pulled the unzipped sleeping bag over him. "Now, try to get some rest."
Blair had just stepped through the door. "Good idea. And, Jim, try to tune down your senses."
"We're being hunted, Sandburg." Jim wearily pointed out.
"Yeah, but you've taken two pretty severe overloads, plus we are still having thunder. Your mind needs to heal before it can handle your senses again."
Jim wanted to argue, but his pounding head and the raw soreness of his mind testified to Blair's logic. "Okay," he softly relented before drifting to sleep.
Blair studied him silently for a few moments, then glanced up to Mac. "He's not going to be able to hike out."
Mac sighed. "I know. But there is a small air strip near here. We might be able to get some help flown in." Another roll of thunder, accompanied by the roar of torrential rain, interrupted Mac's words. "Maybe after this storm lets up." He pulled out the phone.
"Hey, there's the air strip!" Jack pointed out gleefully.
Simon couldn't see anything in the driving rain, and wondered how Dalton could. However, he would take Dalton's word for it, if it meant they could safely reach the ground soon. 'Safely' being the key word.
"Hang on, this might get a little hairy."
MIGHT get a little hairy? It had already been A LOT hairy from Simon's perspective. He wasn't sure he wanted to know Jack's definition of a little hairy. The small plane began to circle in the buffeting wind. Simon braced himself against the dash, trying desperately to remember all the advice dispensed from friendly stewardesses on huge jets. He wished he was on a big jet. He wished he was anywhere else but here.
The plane wobbled as the nose pointed downward, then seemed to increase in speed. Simon could feel the hard bumps through the floor as the plane rocked its way down. It took him a few moments to realize that the last couple small bumps were actually the ground.
Jack chuckled as the plane slid to a stop on the wet grass. "That has got to be my best landing in weather since the service. What do you think, Captain?"
Simon's answer was ripping off the seatbelt, opening the door, and racing through the rain to get sick in the bushes.
Blair had borrowed Mac's binoculars to play lookout in the attic storeroom of the hall. A pile of rope in front of the small window made a hard, but sufficient place to prop his arms. From this advantage point, he routinely searched for Harding's people, though the driving rain and the gloom of the storm made it hard to see. He could really use Jim's heightened senses now.
Jim had been sound asleep when he left, and Blair was hoping he would sleep for awhile. Blair didn't know how to treat such a severe sensory-overload, but he suspected it might be similar to a concussion. Hopefully, after a few days of rest, Jim's headache and nausea would decrease. Then they could work on Jim's control again, like they did after the Golden. Blair tried not to think of possible permanent damage, or what further injections of that drug could do to his big friend.
A flash of lightening almost blinded him for a moment. Blinking rapidly, he almost missed the trio walking into town.
MacGyver had just climbed up from the basement. There were remains of a theater company there, along with a storage area of old equipment and surprisingly new supplies. It looked like someone may have been planning to do some work to the old place. Perhaps that someone will be by, and give them a lift back to civilization.
What was disturbing were the areas in the main hall flooring that looked like they could barely support their own weight, and certainly not the weight of an adult. Mac was glad they had entered from the back. He shook off visions of him and Ellison crashing through the floor.
"Mac!" Blair called out as he rapidly descended the stairs, pitching head first when a step gave way beneath him. Mac caught him, and helped him back to his feet. "Harding and his people just entered town. I think they are searching building to building, starting with those small houses at the north edge of town."
"East," Mac absently corrected, his mind already estimating how much time before Harding reached the hall.
"Whatever. What are we going to do?"
"First we need to find a good hiding place for Ellison. He's what they want, and he's too sick right now to be of much help."
Blair's mind quickly shifted out of panic mode and into thinking mode. "How about that pantry off the kitchen? It is just about long enough for Jim to stretch out."
"And out of the way enough to buy us some time. " Mac continued as he pointed his flashlight towards the kitchen.
"Time for what?" Blair questioned, speeding up his pace to keep up with Mac's longer legs.
"Time to set some traps for our terrorists. Say, have you seen any rope?"
Man, this sucks. It was still thundering and raining hard. Simon hadn't been this wet since he was abducted by Quinn. As Dalton trotted up to him after securing the plane and picking up his gun, Simon shouted, "Surely, with Ellison being sick, MacGyver and Sandburg would have found him some shelter out of this."
"Most definitely," Jack agreed loudly. "Mac can be rather protective when he's worried, and he sounded worried last night."
"So where do we start? I doubt they got past this point before the storm hit.
"How about that ghost town listed on the topos? Mac had a map, and it must have something they could get out of the weather in."
"Good idea. Let's go"
They were a few feet away from a four-wheel drive trail, when they heard a motor. Slipping and sliding, they struggled to climb up the wet bank to meet it. As Simon and Dalton were nearing the top, a wave of muddy water displaced by the vehicle poured over them. Sputtering, Simon barely caught a glimpse of the license plate. "That looks familiar. Where have I seen it?"
Jack finally grabbed onto a tree to pull himself up, then reached down for Banks. "Are you all right?" he asked, wiping the mud from his eyes.
Simon leaned forward, hands on knees, and coughed. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm just wondering if the jerks in the SUV are friendly or not."
Dalton peered into the rain. "Don't know. But if they aren't friendly, we'd better get moving."
They continued walking along the muddy road. At least the rain was washing off most of the mud from their faces and clothes. A few minutes later, headlights shone on them from behind. They both turned, not sure if they should flag the jeep down, or hide.
The vehicle stopped, its passenger's door opening enough for an umbrella to poke through. A high, perky female voice shouted, "Jack Dalton! What on earth are you doing here?"
Jack's face broke out in a wide grin of recognition. "This one is definitely friendly," he told Simon as he walked forward to greet his friend.
Mac walked back up the stairs towards Blair's light, dragging an old net. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," Blair replied. He had just tossed a second length of rope over a beam, wincing from the pull on his sore shoulder.
"Here are those catches, " Jim continued from his seated position near the shielded lantern. He held up the whittled pieces of wood, then closed Blair's knife.
Mac did a double-take. 'I didn't know you carried a swiss army knife, Jim."
"I don't," Jim replied with a slight smile, "Blair does."
"Why?" Blair asked.
"Because I always carry one, too." Mac replied. He shook his head. It was almost scary how much he and Sandburg were alike.
Jim looked around the back room, amazed at what Blair and Mac were devising. "You know, this is beginning to look like something from a Road Runner cartoon, " he commented, standing up. Suddenly, his headache increased sharply, and his vision blurred. Next thing he knew, Mac and Blair were holding him up. "Jim, can you hear me?" Blair asked frantically.
Blinking, Jim peered down at Blair in confusion. "Yeah, I can hear you." Just don't ask if I can see you.
Grimly, Mac was studying his face. "Let's get you back into the kitchen."
Jim nodded mutely. They were in this mess because of him, and now he couldn't even help get them out. "Sorry," he muttered.
"Ellison," Mac gently scolded as they helped him to the sleeping bag in the pantry. "Trust us."
Jim smiled faintly in return. "Yeah, I trust you."
"Good. Now get some rest!" Blair ordered as he aided Jim down to the floor, then handed him the water bottle. "And try to drink some water." Blair suspected that part of Jim's problem was dehydration and lack of food. While Jim might not be able to keep food down, Blair had been trying to gradually give him water. Man, he just wanted to get Jim to a hospital. But to do that, they had to stop the bad guys. Blair trotted behind Mac to finish their traps.
Entering the hall, Goldie and Rodger walked in front of Harding, searching with flashlights and guns. "Hey, I see a hat," Rodger called. He crept up to the baseball cap, looking around for prints in the thick dust. Within a foot of it, the floorboards gave way. Shouting and accidentally pulling the trigger of his automatic rifle, he crashed through the floor.
"Rodger!" Goldie cried out.
She started to take a step towards the hole, but stopped when Harding called. "Halt! We don't know how good the rest of the floor is."
"Rodger, are you okay?" she called.
Muffled, Rodger called up, "I landed on a mattress in a cage made of cyclone fencing. I don't know if I can get out."
"Okay, Goldie, we will have to try the back. They are definitely here."
On the other side of the hall, Blair quietly slipped to the back room to inform Mac to expect company. Quietly, they stood in their pre-arranged spots, waiting.
Harding and Goldie crept in, searching for their prey. Behind the staircase, Blair held his breath as Goldie approached a loop of rope nearly invisible in the darkness. The instance her foot stepped in the loop, Blair ripped the catch from the duct tape, releasing the old motor hanging above to slam in to the floor. Goldie screamed as she was flipped off the floor, hanging upside down from one foot.
Blair's glee was short-lived. Suddenly, a flashlight beam focused on him with blinding intensity. Instantly, Blair threw himself behind the staircase, blinking his eyes to regain their night vision.
"Damn you, punk, " Harding growled, "You've caused me enough trouble!"
"Now it's my turn," came a voice from above. A net fell from nowhere, knocking Harding to the ground and his gun from his hands. The more he struggled against the weighted net, the tighter he became entangled.
Blair turned on the lantern as Mac climbed down the ladder from the loft. Hardings turned to Mac. "MacGyver! I should have know you were behind this. You will pay!"
"Maybe you should have retired when you had the chance," Mac replied, catching the fine rope Blair tossed to him.
Blair jerked back when Harding tried to lunge for him. "I'd better check on Jim."
"Please do. We'd like to talk with Mr. Ellison."
Blair and Mac spun around to the side door. Mac calmly slid his gaze from the gun pointed at him, and directly into eyes of the man holding it. "Exactly what is going on, Cromwell."
"Yeah, " Blair nervously piped in, "I thought you guys were trying to catch Harding and his people."
Ralston laughed. "Now why would we want to interfere in an operation where we get ten percent?"
"Is it sanctioned, or free-lance?" Mac asked, his voice hardening to steel. There was one last trap waiting, but neither he nor Blair could reach it.
Cromwell drawled, "Oh, strictly free-lance. The agency would probably muck it up otherwise."
"Looks already mucked up to me," Blair replied, fuming.
"Then we better clean up," Ralston returned, cocking his gun to fire at Blair. From the right, a ripping sound triggered a sandbag to swing across the floor in front of Blair and Mac. Ralston, hit dead on, slammed into the floor while his gun discharged over Blair's head. Cromwell was bumped by Ralston, knocking the gun out of his hands. Mac made a dive for the sliding gun, but realized he couldn't reach it before Cromwell.
"FREEZE! CASCADE POLICE!" shouted a deep voice. Simon Banks marched into the room, his gun trained on the crooked DXS agent.
"I have this one covered," added Jack Dalton as he pointed his gun at the unconscious Ralston.
Blair nearly wilted in relief, glancing over to the kitchen doorway. Jim gave him a weak smile, bracing himself against the door frame.
Simon quickly cuffed Cromwell, then stood up to see the young woman hanging by her foot, and an older man entangled in a net. His face reflecting dazed bewilderment as he studied the ropes and duct tape, he turned to Blair and exclaimed, "Sandburg, what did you do? Place an order with the Acme Company?"
Blair grinned back cheekily, while Mac just shrugged.
"You okay, MacGyver?" asked the husky, dark-haired man standing inside the door. Brown eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses narrowed in concern as he looked Mac over.
"Clark Westbrook?" Mac gasped in surprise. He quickly shook his head and blinked. "What are you doing here? Where's Penny?"
"Hi Mac! Is it safe now?" Penny Parker Westbrook poked her head around the corner of the door.
"Safe enough, " Mac admitted with a smile as Simon finished cuffing Goldie, and started towards the others. Blair watched in amazement as the beautiful brunette trotted over to Mac, wrapped her arms around his middle, and hugged him tightly. Mac's face softened into an indulgent smile as he returned the hug. Then he glanced over Penny's head to Clark. "Hey, doc, could you check out my friend by the door?"
Clark nodded, "Captain Banks already updated me." He walked over to where Blair was easing Jim back to the floor, opening his emergency medical bag.
Penny tilted her head up to look at her friend. "Now, just because you transferred your role as my protector when you gave me away at the wedding, doesn't mean you can just go out and get yourself into trouble." She playfully hit Mac's arm.
"You know me, I don't have any better luck staying out of trouble than you do. What are you and Clark doing here?"
"Oh, Clark's family owns a mining claim near here. For fun, we come up and try our hand at panning for gold. Besides," Penny leaned over to Mac and whispered loudly, "Clark's beeper doesn't work up here."
"I heard that!" Clark exclaimed back. Jim winced a little at the noise, but didn't complain. He could faintly hear a helicopter approaching, and knew the ordeal was nearly over.
Two days later.
Jim sat on the hospital bed, pulling his Cascade PD sweatshirt over his head. Earlier, the doctor had informed him that the drug was nearly gone from his system. Jim's headache and nausea seemed to have eased up considerably as well, so the doctor pronounced him recovered enough to go home. While his control over his senses also seemed to have strengthen as the drug wore off, Jim was looking forward to working with his guide in the privacy of the loft. He also hoped that his memory of his time in the forest would clear up. He had a feeling that there was something he should remember, but the memory continued to be elusive.
Hearing footsteps in the hall, Jim focused his hearing to see if Blair had arrived to take him home. Instead, a slightly heavier step with a longer stride greeted him. It was familiar enough, though, that Jim easily identified his company. He smiled as the door opened, "Hello, Mac."
Mac smiled in return. "You look like a man ready to go home."
"Most definitely, as soon as my ride shows up."
MacGyver nodded, "I think Blair should be close behind me. But I wanted to let you know that the government's case against Harding, his people, Cromwell, and Ralston are looking pretty good. They shouldn't bother you again."
Jim nodded. He was glad no one else would become an unwilling assassin, or be put through the kind of sensory hell he had just endured. He knew he would have died like the other four victims if it hadn't been for Blair and MacGyver. He lifted his gaze to Mac's eyes, "Thank you again for saving me, and keeping an eye on Blair."
Mac held Jim's gaze, "Any time." The silent communication between the two men was broken when a long-haired anthropologist stepped in.
"Hey, Jim, ready to go?" Blair asked merrily. Then he noticed the other man, "Oh, hi Mac. How's it going?"
"Fine, thanks. I have something for you. For both of you, actually."
Blair and Jim gave each other puzzled looks, then accepted the envelopes from Mac. "What's this about?" Jim queried.
"Well, call it insurance," Mac drawled. "Just in case one or both of you ever need a change in scenery, there is an open offer from the Phoenix Foundation."
Jim glanced back at MacGyver. He realized what this was. In case the news of his sentinel abilities got out, the Phoenix Foundation would shelter them. Or, if he was killed in the line of duty, Blair with his unique experiences and expertise would have a place to go. Jim felt his gratitude for the quiet man in front of him deepen. "Thank you."
Blair dragged his eyes from the paper in his hands, his mind still processing this turn of events. "Me, too."
MacGyver smiled. "You're welcome."
"And if we can ever return the favor..." Jim started.
Mac's smile deepened. "I'll let you know."
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