And Winter Fast Approaching - Martha Christine

Warnings: Several major character deaths (NOT JIM & BLAIR).

PROLOG
After the Fire: How the Burn Changed the Face of America Forever

The phenomenon that would eventually come to be known as "the Burn" exploded onto the American landscape in the early dawn hours of May 2, 2001, courtesy of a small, heavily guarded government research facility located 10 miles outside the city of Camden, New Jersey. The initial blast wiped out the facility, the city of Camden, and anything within a 500-mile radius, leaving behind a crater roughly the size of the State of Montana.

The Burn got its name from the most immediate aftereffect of the explosion; a viscous acidic rain that dissolved steel, concrete, wood, glass... and flesh. Six hours after the destruction of the facility, the rain had advanced all the way down the Eastern coast to Florida and inland to the more easterly parts of the Midwest and South. The lucky ones died immediately.

While the West Coast and prairie states were largely unaffected by the rain, the winds carried a slower death. Just as deadly but longer in duration, its effects were cruelly random. Some died within a few days. Others lingered for months. Some were unaffected but discovered the next generation did not benefit from their immunity. Second generation death rates soared; children who didn't die at birth were invariably handicapped by severe mental and physical disabilities.

Rumors said some babies were born free of the Burn, but rumors were just that. The normal lines of communication-television, radio, the Internet, newspapers-ceased to exist. The West coast only learned the fate of its other half and what lay ahead for it from the dying whispers of a few ham-radio operators. The clouds that spawned the acid rain of the Burn also blocked satellite signals.

Four years after the Burn, America (and possibly the world, for no one knows for sure how extensive the spread of the contagion may have been) lay in ruins. Small enclaves of civilization were scattered randomly across the West and prairie states, but the larger cities had, for the most part, been abandoned; given over to thieves and scavengers that preyed on the sick and dying. Anything east of Nebraska was deadland; only a fool ventured there.

Yet oddly enough life went on. Humanity, it soon became apparent, wasn't going to give up without a fight.

***

It occurred to Jim Ellison, as he made his morning patrol of the perimeters, that somehow or other summer had managed to slip into fall without him noticing. Another winter lay ahead, the fourth since the Burn had erupted like Mt. St. Helene's and rewritten his life.

Another year of surviving. Another year of managing to scrape a living out of the wild. A year of feeding the tribe and watching it grow.

One more year without Blair.

He shook his head sharply. Every time he thought he'd managed to push that particular sliver of pain down somewhere deep, it resurfaced. And he didn't have time for remembering, for wondering what had happened to Blair. Had he died alone and in pain? Was he alive, but couldn't find a way to get back to Cascade?

Oh yeah, just catch the next flight from California to Washington State, babe. Should be leaving about the same time Hell freezes over.

Stop it! He ordered himself. He'd been down this road too many times and it led nowhere. He knew that if Blair had been able to come home he would've. That he hadn't...well that was the kicker wasn't it?

The cry of an osprey rang out in the stillness. Once, twice, after the third time he called back. Bryn was done with his section and headed for the cabin. And they were in luck; four of the traps had yielded game.

He allowed himself a moment to really look, noting the leaves were almost all brown now. What would Blair think if he could see what he'd come to? The thought brought a sad smile. The Sentinel protects his tribe, right Sandburg?

Except Cascade was no longer his tribe, and hadn't been for nearly three years.

***

He still remembered the day he knew he had to get out; it had hit him as suddenly and unexpectedly as a sucker punch to the gut. He'd been sitting at his desk pretending to do paperwork, glanced around him, and realized, for the first time since news of the Burn had arrived in Cascade, that the criminals outnumbered the cops fifteen to one. The wind that blew almost constantly now carried the stench of the dead and dying, though he doubted anyone but him could smell it yet.

And he saw Major Crimes as it really was; an understaffed, shell-shocked group of men and women trying to enforce laws that no longer mattered. His eyes strayed towards Simon's office, where the Captain of Major Crimes sat slumped in one of the chairs, unlit cigar in his mouth, dark eyes fixed on something only he could see. He'd looked that way since the day he'd tried to call Miami, where Daryl had decided to spend the beginning of Spring Break from college with his mom and her new husband. The last letter from his son, written a week before all hell broke loose, was crumpled in one hand, so tear-stained and ragged the writing was unreadable.

And he'd known then that he couldn't do this anymore. He couldn't believe in a job that involved processing reams of paper for scum who'd be back out on the street in an hour. Slowly but surely the system was breaking down; when it finally collapsed, there'd be hell to pay.

He'd left early that day, driven back to the loft, and ended up packing four boxes of things he knew he'd need, plus another box of stuff that belonged to Sandburg. Blair Sandburg, his partner in Major Crimes and in all things, who a year and four days ago had flown to San Francisco for a Forensics Conference. He'd called Jim the night before the Burn broke; telling him how much he missed him, what they were going to do when he got home, and he'd been so happy, knowing he only had to survive without Blair for two more days.

In the end, he'd loaded the boxes and his guns into the pick-up, stopped at one of the few grocery stores still open for what supplies he could find, and driven up into the Cascade Mountains to the cabin. The cabin had been the old man's; when he'd died two years before he'd willed it to Jim, knowing that Steven had never been much for the great outdoors. The cabin was where they'd come in the summer to vacation with their cousins when they were kids. It was where he and Blair had made love for the first time, the day of his graduation from the Academy. A three-day weekend, they'd driven up here and spent two and a half days learning about each other in a whole new way.

Six months. He remembered pulling up in front of the cabin, shutting off the truck engine, and just sitting there staring at it. They'd only had six months before the Burn destroyed it all. And he knew the Sentinel wasn't supposed to desert his tribe, but Cascade wasn't his tribe anymore. He just hoped that wherever he was, Blair would understand.

***

The rest of them had come to him at sporadic intervals. Bryn had been the first to arrive, a gangling boy of 15 or so with spiky red hair. He appeared at the front door on one of the coldest nights of that first winter, suffering from malnutrition and hypothermia. Jim couldn't even begin to imagine how he'd ever made it from Cascade into the mountains wearing nothing thicker than a Jag's jacket.

He would wonder, later, why he'd hauled the kid inside and spent the next two weeks keeping him alive, until he finally won his battle against pneumonia. He decided in the end that it was simple loneliness; being around Blair had socialized him, and even though Blair was gone he couldn't go back to being the insular, self-centered Jim Ellison of the pre-Blair era.

And when spring came, Bryn had still been there, as if some unspoken agreement existed between them. He was a smart kid, quick to pick up on wilderness survival skills. He didn't talk much, but one night, as they sat on the front porch drinking cups of stale coco (pretty much the last of the supplies he'd brought with him), Bryn told him why he'd left. As Jim had suspected, order had broken down completely the previous fall and gangs now ruled Cascade. Scavs had killed Bryn's parents the week before Christmas.

"Good thing they were Scavs, really," Bryn had looked at him over the rim of his mug, what might have been unshed tears glistening in his green eyes.

Scavs, was short for Scavengers. The gangs had further fragmented into two alliances; Scavs, who lived off what they could find or steal, and Pervs (short for Perverts) who had, or so rumor said, taken to eating the dead to survive. Not because they had to, Bryn told him, but because they wanted too. That night he'd learned a whole new vocabulary: Scavs, Pervs, nightwalkers (which he never quite understood, since the word referred to people who ventured out during the day, when the gangs were less active), "pulling the fuse" (killing someone), sanctuary stations (certain places that everyone, even the gangs, recognized as neutral ground). He wished Blair were there. He could imagine those blue eyes lighting up as his lover listened to a first-person account of the English language changing to fit the circumstances yet again.

***

Cassidy arrived the following summer, another refugee on his front porch, and Jim began to wonder if someone knew he was living here. That was when he and Bryn set the perimeters, and also when he'd told the boy the truth about his Sentinel abilities. Bryn didn't seem that surprised, he'd just nodded while Jim explained what a zone-out was and ways he could bring him back. He figured the kid had known from the start that something about him was a bit off, but like so many things with Bryn, it didn't get talked about unless he initiated the conversation.

Cassidy was another matter all together. Jim wasn't entirely sure her name was Cassidy; that was the name written on the tag in the neck of her shirt. Cassidy never spoke, though she'd look at you if you spoke to her. Mostly she sat on the front porch of the cabin humming tunelessly. Bryn seemed to think she was a mental patient who'd gotten pushed into the streets when the medical community had emptied out the Senior Centers and Group Homes to use as warehouses for the dying.

Her first night there Jim couldn't get her to come into the house at all; she'd insisted on sleeping on the front porch, and he'd had visions of her freezing to death when winter came. She wasn't a young woman, most likely in her early 50s, and again, he wondered how she'd gotten so far alone.

She'd been with them a week when Jim discovered she could do something besides sit in one spot and hum. He and Bryn had come back to the cabin late one night to discover Cassidy in the kitchen making what turned out to be rabbit stew from leftovers. She'd even gone into the garden he'd planted out back and gathered herbs and a few weedy-looking vegetables. Jim had been genuinely surprised when he tasted it, it was certainly much better than anything he or Bryn had ever cooked, and he told her so. She responded by smiling for the first time and made a little huffing noise he'd decided was a laugh. He and Bryn smiled back, and another member joined the tribe.

***

For three years, it was just him, Bryn and Cassidy. Despite the absence of other people he'd insisted on maintaining the perimeter. Bryn shot up like a weed. Jim taught him how to shoot, and discovered the boy had a knack for making trap that rivaled his own. That next spring they planted a better garden, and Cassidy could often be found out in it; sometimes weeding, sometimes just standing, head cocked to one side. She smiled a lot more, but never spoke, and Jim began to doubt she could.

The well for the cabin was dug down deep into the bedrock. Jim worried about the infrequent rains possibly carrying traces of Burn until Bryn pointed out that if they didn't eat the produce it would rot and they'd starve to death anyway, and Jim had to admit he was right. If any of them were likely to be affected by whatever the winds had carried in, they surely would've gotten sick by now.

There were times that summer, out checking the traps with Bryn or watching Cassidy in the garden, swaying silently from side to side as if dancing to music only she could hear, Jim almost forgot why they were really here. The sky was beginning to lose the brassiness it had held for what seemed like forever; some days he imagined he could see traces of blue.

It was only at night, after Bryn and Cassidy were settled in and asleep, that he allowed himself to remember. The pain of Blair's absence had become part of his body; a permanent ache in his chest that never quite went away no matter how distracted he was. Then the realist in him would force him to face the truth: Blair was dead. Those nights he would silently cry himself to sleep.

Other nights he couldn't sleep for worrying. What if Blair wasn't dead? What if he'd survived and something had happened to him while he was trying to get back to Cascade? What if one of the gangs had him? Bryn had let slip that part of the reason he'd left Cascade after his parents' death was because the Scavs were interested in him for a bit more than what he could steal. Most of the gangs relegated certain guys and girls to the status of 'toys', and a 'toys' life was measured in weeks. The idea of Blair dying like that was almost more than he could take, but infinitely worse was the thought that he might not be dead. He knew Sandburg too well to believe he'd give in quietly; he'd fight them every inch of the way.

The nights he dreamed were the worst. Because in his dreams Blair was both alive and dead; here looking the way he had when Jim had slammed him against the wall in his office, hair wild, just so fucking defiant you wanted to shake him; here lying in an alley too sick to move while the Perv's tried to decide whether to start eating him now or wait until he was completely gone. Blair the day he'd graduated the Academy; Blair the first time they'd made love; Blair somewhere trusting Jim to rescue him, like he'd rescued him from Lash and Kincaid, except this time Jim couldn't. He wouldn't even know where to start.

He'd had found an old radio receiver in the shed out back of the cabin and had managed to get it working. It'd been Bryn's idea to hook it up to a solar panel during the day, which switched to a back-up battery after dark. Jim left it on 24 hours a day, and there were times, late at night, when he knew he'd heard the ghost of a whisper from somewhere. Proof that someone besides them was still alive and hoping.

***

The next three members of the tribe arrived on a hot August day. The sky was the color of beaten copper, and Jim had risen at dawn after one of the worst nights he'd had since coming up here three years ago. He ached all over, like he'd gone 10 rounds with Sweet Roy in his prime. He and Bryn were trudging back to the cabin from the perimeter check, carrying a couple of rabbits they'd trapped, when Bryn looked sideways at him and asked, "Who's Blair?"

Jim felt like he'd just slammed headfirst into a brick wall. "Blair?"

"You kept yelling her name last night."

"His." Jim automatically corrected. He looked at Bryn. "His name was Blair Sandburg. He was my partner."

Bryn considered this a moment. "Partner as in cop, or partner as in...the other thing?"

There were times when he forgot that for all his adult trappings, Bryn was barely 18. "Partner in everything."

"What happened to him?"

Jim stared up at the yellowed sky. "He went to San Francisco for a convention three days before the Burn broke loose."

"And he never came back." It wasn't a question, just a simple statement of fact.

"Yeah."

Bryn had nodded and then, to Jim's total surprise, laid the game he was carrying on the ground and hugged him. They stood there a long time, Jim crying and Bryn rocking him gently.

Eventually they broken apart, and Jim realized there were tears on Bryn's face to. "I had a girlfriend in Cascade. Kayla Rodriguez. God she was pretty; long black hair, skin the color of milk chocolate and laughing all the time. We never did anything but kiss cause she was Catholic, but I wanted to marry her once we graduated."

"And you don't know what happened to her either."

"Her family lived downtown. Mom and dad didn't really approve of her, they thought I was too young to get serious about a girl, but I'd sneak out to see her anyway. Last time was on Christmas Eve; I gave her this ring I'd stole for her, kinda like an engagement ring? She was so scared. She wanted us to run away together, said things were getting really bad in her neighborhood. I wanted to take her away from it but I didn't." He looked at Jim. "At least you've got three years and six months of memories of Blair to hold onto. I don't even have a picture of Kayla."

Jim opened his mouth to say something, and a shrill scream echoed through the silence. They exchanged panicked looks and started running, Jim checking to make sure his pistol was still tucked in the back of his belt. "You bring your gun?" Bryn nodded. "I'll go in first, see what's happening. You stay out of sight and cover me. If things look like they're getting too hairy..."

"Pull the fuse."

He nodded as Bryn left his side and went off on a parallel course to the right. The kid was a good shot, good enough to bring down deer. Jim wondered if he could actually shoot another person.

Closer now, he heard voices raised in anger. Underneath it all wound the tuneless humming that let him know Cassidy was okay. He dropped to the ground just before he topped the rise leading up to the cabin and crept forward commando style, popping his head up to see what was going on.

A rusted-out green VW minibus was parked behind his truck. A young girl and a slightly older guy were standing next to it arguing. Cassidy was sitting on the front porch with a smaller girl on her lap. The girl was crying as Cassidy hummed and stroked her hair.

He edged a little closer and froze. The one girl was armed; a stripped down Uzi she was brandishing it in the air to emphasize every point she made. "Look, the bitch obviously hasn' got the sense God gave a box of crayons, okay? We need a place to stay, Adam; you're the one who said that when we left Cascade. Shy needs someplace quiet to rest."

"An she'll get it," the boy snapped back at her. "We're not Scavs anymore, Nicki! This place belongs to someone already n' I don' think we're gonna get on their good side with you wavin' that damn gun around."

"I think he's right," Jim said quietly, pulling himself up, gun aimed at Nicki's back. "This' my cabin, and the woman on the front porch is a friend of mine. So why don't we just put down the hardware and discuss this peacefully?"

Nicki swung around, Uzi raised, and a shot from the right pinged off the metal of the grip. Startled, she dropped it, and Jim managed to cover the remaining distance in a two long strides, scooping it up off the ground before either she or the boy had a chance to realize what'd happened. He pulled out the clip, which was full, and stuffed it into his shirt pocket as Bryn came around the corner of the cabin, pistol held on the ready.

"Oh shit," Nicki swore softly.

"You idiot!" The boy smacked her arm. "Jesus, Christ! Drop the riot girl act n' maybe the guys with the guns'll consider lettin' us spend the night in their front yard. Or you wanna take your chances tryin' to get to Seattle?"

"You can't get to Seattle," Jim slung the Uzi over one shoulder. "At least not from here; the roads are too rough. And unless you've got a spare tank concealed somewhere on that van I doubt you have the gas to make it anyway."

The guy sighed. "Look, I'm sorry about my sister. She has this idea she's Queen of the Fuckin' Wild Frontier cause she got a piece. I'm Adam Frees," he held out his hand to Jim, and Jim took it. "It's jus...we need to find someplace for my wife to rest. The drive up here was pretty hard on her."

Jim glanced over at Cassidy. Wife? He narrowed his eyes, realizing something wasn't quite right. A girl that small...oh fuck.

He looked back at Adam. "How far along is she?"

"Don' know for sure. Can' see a Doc in Cascade less you're dyin'."

Jim nodded, looking back at the porch. It took him a minute to realize that somehow, in the middle of all the shooting and shouting, the girl had fallen asleep.

He tossed the rifle to Bryn. "Lock that up somewhere Annie Oakley can't get hold of it. What say we go inside and talk this over like civilized people? Or is that too much of a strain?" He glared at Nicki, who glared right back until Adam gave her a shove.

"We can do civilized. Right, Nick?"

Nicki glanced down at her feet and nodded sullenly. Reholstering his gun, he put a hand on the back of their necks and started steering them towards the house. Bryn had already disappeared inside, presumably to put the Uzi in the cabinet with their other guns.

As Adam and Nicki mounted the steps, Jim stopped and crouched down, studying Cassidy and the girl. "Cass?" Cassidy stopped humming and looked at him. "Can you take care of..." he glanced at Adam, "what's her name?"

"Shywolf. But we call her Shy."

Jim nodded. "Can you take care of Shy while I talk to these people?"

Cassidy nodded and went back to humming. Jim took that as a yes and followed Adam and Nicki inside.

***

The newcomers sat side by side on the couch in the living room. Jim sat in what he'd come to think of as 'his chair,' a hideously over-stuffed blue recliner that had been in the cabin for as long as he could remember. Bryn stood next to him; he'd locked up Nicki's Uzi but still had his own gun.

He looked at Adam. "Ball's in your court, Scout."

Adam sighed tiredly, running a hand through his shaggy blond hair. Outside, Jim had figured him as 19 or 20, but now, out of the glare of the sun, he doubted he was much older than Bryn. Nicki was studying her black-painted fingernails. No, not painted...Jim leaned forward, narrowing his eyes.

It clicked into place. "How long's your sister had the Burn?"

"Eight months. So far it's just spots here n' there, ya know? Her fingernails, a couple on her back. She hasn' gotten any new ones for a while." He looked at Nicki. "Have you?"

Nicki continued to stare at her fingers. "I found one on my upper arm last night."

"Oh, shit!" Adam pulled her over and hugged her. "I didn' mean to smack ya, kid. I know how bad they hurt." He looked at Jim. "She didn' used to be like this 'fore the Burn. It's jus', the pain gets on her nerves."

"So how come she got it and you and your wife didn't?" Bryn's voice was cool.

Adam glanced at him, gray eyes narrowed. "Why does anybody get it? Ain't no fuckin' reason, okay? When was the last time you were in Cascade?"

"Three years ago."

"Got out while the gettin' was good then. City's a fuckin' hellhole now. Ain't nothin' left for the scav's to scav. When I found out Shy was gonna have a baby...no kid a mine's gonna be born there. Stole the van, figured maybe we could drive to Seattle. Heard rumors things aren' as bad there."

"How old is Shy?"

"She'll be 15 next month. We're legally married. I got the license out in the van."

"Who married ya?" Bryn asked.

"Some old priest. Guy's dyin' of the Burn anyway, half crazy from the pain. It's not like he's gonna ask if our parents approve is he?"

Jim leaned forward. "Your parents are dead?"

"Yeah. Nick n' me didn' have anyone but our Mom anyway, n' she took sick right after the winds started. Shy lived cross the hall, we've known her all our lives. Knocked on our door one mornin' for the sun was even up; her old man n' his girlfriend had took off sometime durin' the night n' left her. So we let her live with us."

"Thought I heard you say you were Scavs," Bryn's voice was deadly quiet, and Jim suddenly understood where the hostility was coming from.

Nicki looked up, dark eyes blazing. "You do what you gotta do kid. We might a been Scavs, but at least we never ate nobody."

"Knock it off, both of you," Jim cut in. He gave Bryn a look that said they would talk privately later. "I'll be honest with; there's times, especially during the winter, that Bryn and I have trouble feeding ourselves and Cassidy. You factor three more people into that, especially a pregnant girl...I'm not sure we can offer you anything except a place to sleep. The hunting and trapping's held up pretty well thus far, but sooner or later we're gonna run out of things to eat. What then?"

"We, uh, might be able to work out somethin'," Adam looked over at Nicki. "We did one last bit a scavin' fore we left Cascade. How long's it been since you had canned food?"

Jim eyed him skeptically. "You've got 'canned' food?"

Adam nodded. "About eight boxes of it. Took a bit of work to get it, that's why Nicki had the Uzi."

"So you know how to shoot?" Jim looked at her.

"I didn' actually 'shoot' anyone, Mister. Jus' kept'em busy while Adam loaded the stuff up."

"Is it any good?" He looked back at Adam.

"What we opened was. Had a couple cans of fruit cocktail on the ride up here. Nick n' me'd be willin' to help you with the huntin'. We're used to pullin' our own weight."

It was times like this Jim wished Blair was there. He could've probably mediated the hostility and still manage to come up with a way to make everyone happy. Realistically, even with the help, he wasn't sure three more mouths to feed wouldn't overtax their resources. But there was Shy to think of; who knew what the Burn might've done to her? And at least he had Army Medic training; he'd helped deliver more than one baby for the Chopec.

He sighed. "We'll do it on a provisional basis." You contribute the canned goods, we'll see how well you hold up your end of the deal. But there's going to be an understanding right now. Bryn's parents were killed by Scavs, and I don't think he's happy about me letting you move in." He turned to Bryn. "Are you going to be able to live with them here? Because if you can't, then maybe we need to make other plans."

Bryn was staring at his feet. "I'll do it for the guy's wife." He said softly. "But they better not be getting' up to no Scav tricks."

"Fair enough. Adam, are you good with that? Because I don't have the time or patience to be refereeing fights."

Adam glanced sideways at Nicki, who was staring at the ceiling, and nodded. "I'll keep Nick in line. You don' hafta worry 'bout Shy, she wouldn' hurt a flea. What 'bout the lady on the front porch?"

"That's Cassidy. She doesn't talk, but she does do most of the cooking. She's harmless."

"Got no knives to sharpen with her, man. Hell, Shy hasn' slept in nearly a week n' she had her out like a light in 10 minutes. I can live with that."

"Nicki?" She looked at Jim. "I'll be honest with you; I've never seen a case of the Burn. How do you deal with the pain? I can't have you waving guns in the air threatening to kill people every time you start to hurt."

She slumped back. "I'm okay most a the time. If it gets to hurtin' real bad, I usually jus' go off by myself. 'specially now that Shy's gonna have a baby. I get pretty damn bitchy when I hurt bad."

Jim nodded. "Bring the stuff inside, and we'll see what we've got."

***

The cabin had two bedrooms, as well as a fully finished attic accessible through a set of fold-down stairs. Jim had taken the front bedroom when he'd first come, and Bryn had slept in the back one until Cassidy showed up. Then he'd started sleeping in the living room. Jim had brought his and Blair's sleeping bags with him and Bryn used them, but he couldn't expect Shy to sleep on the floor so he ended up letting her and Adam have his room and moved into the living room with Bryn.

That still left Nicki, though. Jim didn't think Cassidy would be willing to share her personal space, and he couldn't very well put her in Adam and Shy's room.

"Why not?" Adam asked him later that evening; he was out back of the cabin chopping wood for the fireplace. "Hell, Jim, we been sleepin' on lot harder floors than yours the last couple years."

"I just assumed you'd want some privacy."

Adam laughed. "Look man; you scav for very long, privacy becomes an unknown concept. Nick can sleep on the floor in a sleepin' bag; we got a couple in the van. Or she can sleep in the livin' room with you n' Bryn. We'll work somethin' out."

***

By October Jim was grateful for the extra sets of hands. The first snowfall came on the 5th; a blizzard that lasted nearly three days. Thankfully, he'd thought to put the woodpile on the back porch, but they almost ran out of fuel for the fireplace before silence descended on the third day.

It took the combined efforts of him, Bryn, Adam and Nicki to shovel them out. He stood on the back porch for a long time that morning, Bryn on one side, Adam on the other, smelling the air. The faint acrid tang of the Burn was still there, even under the clean smell of snow, but he dialed it down.

After a while, he turned to them. "I'd say we've got 3-4 days before the next storm hits. "There's enough meat from the last two deer to hold us a while, so our major job is to chop as much wood as possible.

They only had two axes; in the end they'd taken turns spelling each other. Even Nicki chopped for a while, though her mouth was set in a tight line and Jim suspected she was in significant pain.

Cassie and Shy were inside, rendering down animal fat for the lanterns. It was times like this Jim was extremely grateful he'd thought to pack Blair's Foxfire books; his knowledge of wilderness survival was extensive, but solely on a one person basis.

He was sitting on the back steps, watching Bryn and Adam chopping wood, and it suddenly struck him that what he had here was his own little tribe. If he'd been alone, he would've closed off all the rooms but the front one and let himself zone. He'd thought about that a few times in the beginning when the pain of missing Blair was still fresh; how easy it would be to just wander off and never come back, but something had always kept him from doing it. At first it'd been the vague hope that Blair might come home. After he left Cascade, he'd been busy fixing the cabin. Then Bryn and Cass had showed up and zoning out ceased to be an option. These people depended on him, not the same way the Chopec had, but they were still counting on him to tell them what needed doing, to think ahead, to step in when the talk between Bryn and Nicki took a nasty turn.

He smiled slightly, shaking his head. Blair would have a field day with this. Sentinel of the Great City becomes Sentinel of the Cascade Mountains! Complete with his own tribe of misfits. Now if Blair were here they'd have their Shaman and be all set.

"Hey." He looked up at Nicki. "Whatcha thinkin' bout?"

"Why?"

"Cause you were smilin'. Haven' seen you smile more n' twice since we got here." Some quirk of providence had told him to bring along all the winter paraphernalia he and Blair owned, which meant everyone had a winter coat.

"Just thinking about my friend."

"Blair?" He squinted at her. "Didn' know if it was sposed to be a secret or not. Shy wanted to know who the guy in the picture in your bedroom was, so Bryn tol' us."

He'd forgotten the picture. For a long time he'd had it on the bedside table where it was the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning. About a year ago he'd slipped it into the drawer. A symbolic acknowledgement that Blair was gone, maybe? Shy must've found it.

"It don' make any difference to us," Nicki sat down next to him. She was rubbing her hands together and Jim couldn't help noticing that the black on her fingernails had spread significantly. At first it'd been a spot here and there; now the spots were starting to run into each other. She caught him looking. "It don' hurt that much. Cold sorta makes it numb. You ever see anybody die from the Burn, Mr. Ellison?" He'd told them to call him Jim, and while Adam did it readily enough, Nicki and Shy persisted in calling him Mr. Ellison. He shook his head. "Our mom died from it. Sometimes the spots'll stop after a while. But if they don', eventually they all bleed together n' the person turns black. Not black like a black person, jus'...dead black."

"Are the spots spreading?"

She nodded. "Don' tell Adam. He's got nough to worry 'bout with Shy."

"I won't," he promised, then he put an arm around her, letting her pretend she was hiding her face in the front of his coat because it was cold, not because she was 16 and her life could very well be over in a few months. By the time it was his turn to spell Adam, she'd used the bandana he kept in his pocket to blow her nose and they were talking about whether or not they should find a Christmas tree for Shy. As if celebrating Christmas while Cascade and the rest of the world went to hell was as natural as breathing.

***

By the end of November, the blizzards had tapered off to once every couple of weeks. He, Bryn and Adam had gone hunting and managed to bring down some wild turkeys. Jim had long ago lost track of the date but they decided to have Thanksgiving dinner anyway, with the turkey and some of the precious canned goods.

Somehow, Cassidy and Shy made the tough meat edible. Jim thought he'd figured Adam and Nicki out fairly well, but Shy was as much an enigma as Cassidy. Maybe that was why they got along so well. Cassidy seemed to understand that Shy needed more food and frequent rest; he'd seen her slipping the kid things from her plate or pushing her into the living room to lie on the couch while she and Bryn washed up the dishes. Jim decided he'd been wrong about how far along she was when they'd shown up; she was just so tiny she'd probably started showing in her third month.

In the evenings, once the kitchen was cleaned up and they'd hauled enough wood inside to last the night, they'd sit in the living room and talk. About the Burn, what'd happened, where the world was headed. Nicki talked about nursing their mom until she died. They discussed Shy and Adam's baby, and what everyone's job would be when she went into labor. Their trust that he knew what to do seemed implicit and he wasn't quite sure how to handle that. Later, after everyone else had bedded down for the night (Cassidy still insisted on sleeping in the back bedroom, frigid as it was), he and Adam would go into the kitchen and talk about Shy's pregnancy and their fear the baby would be born sick.

"What are the odds?" Jim asked one night.

Adam shrugged. "Don' know. Couple girls in the gang had babies born with the Burn; most of'em were either born dead or barely lived a week. I saw one or two that didn' die right off, but they had serious problems. One of the guys in our gang was a real brain in school; he said whatever was in the Burn messed with their genetics. Broke the DNA so they're not normal. One little boy was deaf n' blind both. Couldn' walk either. His mom smothered'im; said she couldn' stand his screamin' all the time."

Jim's stomach twisted. "And you let her do it?"

"I know you were a policeman, Jim, but you gotta understan' that things are different now. What kinda life's a kid like that gonna have?"

"And if you and Shy's baby's born sick?"

"I don' know." Adam stared into the fireplace. "I don' think I could kill my own flesh n' blood. I know Shy couldn'. But sometimes jus' havin' the kid kills the mother. Poisons her from the inside, Garret said. That's why Nick never gets too close to Shy."

"Is it contagious?"

"Nobody knows. I don' think it is; our mom'd been dead quite a while 'fore Nicki came down with it. Seen a lot of people take care of people dyin' of it n' they never got sick, or if they did it was couple years down the line. I think it's just random, ya know? Like what Garret said 'bout genetics. Maybe some people got a built-in immunity to it. I mean, you n' Bryn n' Cass are fine. You told us you lived in Cascade for more n' a year after the winds started. So who knows?"

Long after he'd left to join Shy in bed, Jim lay awake staring into the fireplace. That anything could be so random and cruel just made him sick. He wondered, for the first time in nearly four years, what'd happened to Simon and the rest of the gang from Major Crimes? Were any of them still alive? Had anyone been there to take care of them at the end?

Eventually he drifted into an uneasy sleep, full of dead black bodies and babies with no eyes who did nothing but scream from the pain.

It was getting close to Christmas. He sensed it somehow. After the early blizzards the weather had turned warmer, and he'd been taking advantage of the calm to teach Adam and Nicki how to hunt and lay traps. Neither of them was particularly squeamish about it; like Adam said, they'd been scaving for three years. Trapping a deer was child's play compared to picking through dumpsters trying to find something to eat.

He noticed that Bryn and Nicki were spending a lot of time together. Bryn had been the one who volunteered to teach her how to hunt; which Jim thought odd at the time. The day Nicki brought home her first kill he wasn't sure who was prouder, her for doing it or Bryn for showing her how and being there. Okay, so it was one small rabbit, but, as she'd told Jim later, it meant she was helping the tribe.

And that was another strange thing. Out of the blue (because he knew for a fact he'd never said anything to them about it), the rest of them started referring to themselves as "the tribe." Adam said it first, and everyone else accepted it, and now when they talked it was to discuss what "the tribe" needed or what would be best for "the tribe." It was amusing in a surreal way; more and more, he found himself wishing Blair were here.

That's what struck him the most; that after nearly four years alone he couldn't look at anything without thinking of Blair. He thought he'd managed to lay that part of his life to rest, but evidently he'd been fooling himself. And that was the tribe's doing as well. None of the kids found it strange that he and Blair had been lovers. They asked questions, and before he realized it he was telling them about how Blair had come into his life, how one week had turned into three years, how friendship had matured into love.

"Not nearly enough love in the world, man," Adam said. He smiled sideways at Shy and laid his hand on her belly, and she grinned and ducked her head. Jim was sure she must be close to term, there was simply no way she could get any bigger. She'd complained to him that Cassidy made her spend all day on the couch with her feet up; he'd seen Cass shoo her out of the kitchen any time she tried to help.

He'd been keeping close tabs as her pregnancy progressed. Sentinel hearing made a pretty good stethoscope, so he knew the baby's heartbeat was strong. And it was a mover; Shy complained the damn thing never stopped kicking. Everyone in the house had felt it. Bryn had been embarrassed about touching Adam's wife. Nicki had smiled and made a joke about it being as rowdy as Adam, but Jim had caught the sadness in her eyes when she'd looked away. The Burn hadn't spread any further since September and Jim knew she was praying for a miracle. He also knew she was too pragmatic to let herself believe she'd be that lucky.

Cassidy had been the most affected by it. She'd sat for nearly an hour with her hand on Shy's belly. Then to everyone's surprise, she'd sat back, smiled at Shy, and mimicked rocking a baby in her arms. Shy had laughed, which made Cassidy laugh too. Since the arrival of Adam, Nick and Shy, Cass had become more grounded. The humming was pretty much a thing of the past. But she still hadn't spoken, communicating mostly with smiles, or in Shy's case, narrowing her eyes and tightening her mouth. Shy swore she looked like Adam's mom when she did it.

***

The Christmas tree was Nicki's idea. "For Shy n' the baby," but Bryn told Jim in private that it was as much for her; she didn't believe she'd be alive next December. They managed to find a nice-sized pine and haul it home. Adam built a stand for it, and Cassidy, Nicki and Bryn, with encouragement from Shy, made decorations out of can labels and other junk. Bryn had been carving a nativity scene since shortly after Thanksgiving. It was rough but all the more beautiful for it; just Mary, Joseph, the baby and what Bryn said was supposed to be an angel, except he couldn't get the wings right. "Sort of an earthbound angel,' he said, when he sat it on the table next to the couch, and Jim caught him looking at Nicki. He'd been worried about how Shy and the rest of them would react with Christmas coming; in years past, he and Bryn (and later Cassidy) had simply ignored the whole idea of a holiday. Only gradually had it dawned on him that their enthusiasm was based on the certainty of having somewhere warm to sleep and adequate food. He asked Nicki about it one evening as they sat on the front porch watching the sunset.

She laughed. "Don' do to get your expectations too high, Mr. Ellison. This' the first year we've even 'talked' bout Christmas since the Burn came. When your scavin', life jus' sorta goes by in a blur. Your belly's always empty n' your cold mosta the time. This," she gestured at the frozen whiteness around them, "is nice. I mean, yeah, it's crowded, but you n' Bryn n' Cass are nice people. Back in the gang, if I didn' watch my ass, somebody'd like as not try to kill me. An I was lucky, I had Shy n' Adam. Most a the other kids were alone. Any family they had was dead of the Burn or they got left behind."

"Left behind?"

"Like what Shy's ol' man n' his girlfriend did. Lotta the older folks jus' packed up n' left Cascade. Chasin' rumors, I guess. An' the kids got left behind to take care a themselves. That's why the gangs formed, really. Adam, Shy n' me didn' go anywhere near the gangs till after our mom died. There was safety in numbers. It was sorta like a family; you looked out for the people in your gang n' they looked out for you. It wasn' perfect, but then, what is?"

After she'd gone inside, Jim continued to sit, staring at the night sky. No stars, but the cloud-cover at night had a weird sort of luminosity to it; like a statue that was backlit. As if nature were attempting to make up for the fact they no longer had the moon and stars to guide them.

Left behind. That's what he'd done to the people in Major Crime. Oh he could justify it all he wanted; say that his Sentinel senses couldn't take any more of the smell and the heat. Hell, he'd even left Blair behind. If he ever had made it back to Cascade, the loft would be the first place he went. And Jim hadn't even written him a note saying where he was going.

"Jim?" He looked up at Adam, standing in the doorway. "You'd best get in here. I think Shy's gonna have the baby."

***

The next few hours were a blur. They'd been getting ready for bed when her water broke. Further questioning revealed that she'd had a backache all day, but didn't think it was worth mentioning. Jim dispatched Cass to start heating water, while he, Bryn and Nicki got things ready for the delivery.

He and Shy had agreed early on that the old-fashioned iron bed was too high off the ground for comfort, so they'd ended up bringing a mattress down from the upstairs and airing it out. The front bedroom was big enough that they could put it on the floor and still leave room for Jim and Adam. He'd been coaching Adam and Shy on the breathing for a couple of months, but he'd made it clear to them that while it might help, the delivery was still going to hurt. If things go too bad he had painkillers in his larger medical kit, but they'd stop the labor. From the daily checks he'd been doing the last three weeks, he was pretty sure the baby was head down, but he didn't even want to think what he was going to do if Shy's hips weren't wide enough for it to fit through. There was no way he could do an episiotomy. If the kid got stuck, or Shy got exhausted...he'd tried to keep from thinking about either of those outcomes too closely. Theoretically, he knew what he should do. He also knew that doing it would result in the death of Shy, the baby, or both. He already had the blood of the men in his company on his hands; he wasn't going to add the blood of the innocent to it.

When they finally got Shy settled, with Adam beside her, he timed the contractions and found out they were still 10 minutes apart. Unless something happened to make them speed up, they probably had a while. He also did a vaginal check, which embarrassed the hell out of him, though Adam and Shy seemed to think it was pretty funny.

"I'll be honest," he told them afterwards. "You're just beginning to dilate. Since you didn't have any doctor's check-ups, I don't know if there's anything that likely to present a problem. The baby's heartbeat's strong, and it's dropped, which is why you've had the backache all day. But as to how long the whole process will take...I couldn't even hazard a guess. First labor and delivery's are virtually impossible for a trained specialist to predict; all I've had is Army Medic training, and while I've delivered baby's before, it was under entirely different circumstances."

"With the Chopec."

"And then I only got called in if something went wrong. Chopec women use a midwife; traditionally, the men keep as far away from the hut where the woman is in labor as they can get. The fact they even asked me for help is a sign that things weren't going right."

"Look, we know you'll do the best ya can." Adam was sitting on the floor by the mattress, holding Shy's hand. "Jus' the fact you're here's good. In the gang most've the girls went off n' delivered the baby's by themselves. We've already discussed what could happen; if somethin' goes wrong, it's nature's way."

Jim nodded. "I'll be out in the living room. If the contractions get to be, say, 3-4 minutes apart or if you just get worried that something's not right, come and get me. That goes double for you, Shy. You're the one in labor. If something's wrong, your body will know it before Adam does."

***

In the living room, Bryn and Nicki were on the couch whispering to each other. They quickly moved apart when Jim came in, which made him smile.

"Cass's heatin' water," Nicki offered, somehow managing to look embarrassed and defiant at the same time. "She really in labor?" Jim nodded. "How long's it gonna take?"

"There's no way of telling. Some first-time mothers deliver the kid in 12 hours. Others take a couple of days. Right now her contractions are regular, but they're still 10 minutes apart. So she could deliver it later tonight, or not until tomorrow morning, or tomorrow afternoon."

"And if it takes longer?" Bryn reached over and put his hand on Nicki's. "Or somethin' goes wrong?"

Jim shrugged. "I honestly don't know. I've had Army Medic training, which is equivalent to an EMT 2 in real life. I can stitch people up, set bones as long as they're not badly broken, things like that. Technically, I can deliver babies. I did it with the Chopec."

"So you can take care of her, right?"

He shook his head. "Not if anything goes badly wrong. If her pelvis is too narrow for the baby's head to fit through or he's not lying right, I don't have the equipment to do an episiotomy. I don't have forceps to help with a difficult delivery. I wouldn't even dream of trying to do a ceaserian; I'm simply not equipped for it." He slumped back in the chair.

"Hey." Nicki's hand touched his arm, and he looked up at her. He'd noticed she was losing weight the last month or so, and she'd had precious little to spare to begin with. "I jus' want you to know Adam meant what he said. If somethin' happens to Shy or the baby: we're not gonna hold it against you. She could die jus' as easy in a warehouse in Cascade with no one but me n' Adam to help her. So don' go beatin' yourself up over it, 'kay?"

Jim smiled slightly. "And you and Bryn can quit pretending you're not attracted to each other." He almost laughed at the looks on their faces. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to love someone, even when the world's coming to an end. We can use you two as a symbol for worldwide peace: Scav and Norm come together, united by love."

Bryn was blushing; Nicki had her face buried in his neck, but Jim could hear her mumbling, "I tol' you we weren' foolin' him! He's a Sentinel, for crissakes!" It took him a moment to realize that something was wrong. Something not quite right about the sound outside...

"Shh, both of you!" They immediately fell silent. He cocked his head to one side, trying to place what it was he was hearing...no, not hearing, feeling. Vibrations. Vibrations traveling through the earth. Something was coming up the road to the cabin; something big.

He looked at Nicki and Bryn. "We've got company. Get your guns."

The porch was lit with a dozen lanterns by the time the half-track heaved itself over the last bump in the road and pulled up in front of the cabin. He, Bryn and Nicki stood shoulder-to-shoulder, armed and ready. In the lantern's glow he could see they were looking at a modified Hummer; an amphibious vehicle refitted for the terrain. It was painted a familiar brown and green camouflage. Military. He'd often wondered what would happen if someone managed to get the military up and running. There's no such thing as a free police state Blair had once said. His lips tightened and he put the rifle up to his shoulder.

Slowly, the front-end descended. The interior was in darkness, thick enough that even the lanterns couldn't penetrate, but he could make out more than one person. Three, maybe four...he suddenly wished Adam wasn't still inside with Shy.

After what seemed like forever, a figure descended the ramp. Heavily wrapped against the cold, he couldn't tell if it was wearing Army gear or not. It came as far as the edge of the circle of light then stopped, holding up its hands in the traditional gesture of surrender.

"Who're you and what do you want?" Jim's voice was as cold as the metal trigger under his finger.

"Permission requested to unwrap a bit, Sir."

The request took him completely by surprise and he automatically answered. "Granted."

"Thank you, sir." The figure unwound a couple of scarves from around its neck and pushed his hood back, then stepped forward into the circle of lantern night. "Colonel Michael Macabbria, sir. 227th Engineers Battalion, Cascade. You're Detective James Ellison, aren't you?" Jim nodded. "I've got some friends of yours with me, sir. Or at least they say they're your friends."

"Friends?" He heard Bryn echo the word.

"Do they have names, Colonel?"

"Yes sir." He turned back to the half-track and gestured. Jim watched as three figures, at least as heavily wrapped at the Colonel, made their way down the ramp. There was something familiar about them. The way they walked, maybe?

Without taking his eyes off the approaching guests, he spoke to Bryn and Nicki. "Lower your weapons. Keep them ready, but no firing unless I say so. Got it?"

He didn't bother to check and see if they'd done as he'd asked, he was too busy studying the three people approaching the porch. As they moved into the circle of the lantern's light, he lowered his gun.

"Jim?" One of them was slightly in front of the others. A woman, he decided, from the build and the voice. Now she unwrapped several scarves, revealing short-cropped red hair. "Jim? Do you recognize me?"

His mouth worked a few times before anything came out. "Connor?" He whispered, or at least he thought he was whispering it, but she must've heard him because she smiled. "Megan Connor?" He felt the gun slip from his fingers; either Bryn or Nicki caught it before it hit the porch. "How in the hell did you get up here?"

She moved forward, still smiling. "The Colonel was nice enough to give us a ride. Took a little arm-twisting, but we can be very persuasive when we want, can't we mates?"

The two other figures had come up behind her, and were also unwrapping. He caught a brief glance of light off dark skin. "Simon?"

"No Jim, it's Joel." Joel Taggert stepped up to stand next to Megan. Jim's stomach lurched at how thin he was, his features drawn; yet he still managed a smile. "God, Jim Ellison, you would have to live on top of the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range, wouldn't you?"

This was a dream, Jim decided. This was some sort of strange nightmare brought on by too much time spent alone. Except he hadn't been alone, He'd had the tribe hadn't he? Or had he imagined them too? He looked back at Megan. "How'd you know where I was?"

"Ah, that would be Sandy's doing." She pulled the third figure forward. "Found him wandering around Cascade looking for his roomie. We've only spent the last three years wondering where you'd gone to and wonder boy here knew the minute we asked."

And that's when he realized he was hearing it; a sound he hadn't heard for nearly four years. A sound he only heard in his sleep. So he WAS sleeping, wasn't he? Because there was no way that he could be here now. He was dead. He'd been dead for a long, long time. Hadn't he been dead?

He looked up and found his gaze held by a pair of blue eyes. The hair was shorter, the glasses were thicker, there were more lines on the face than had been there the last time he'd seen it, but the smile remained untouched. The smile was being offered to him now even as the man who couldn't possible be here walked up onto the porch, only stopping when they were almost nose-to-nose.

"Hi, Jim." And of course he spoke with Blair Sandburg's voice because this was Jim's dream. And his face was Blair Sandburg's in spite of the short hair and the heavier glasses.

Tentatively, Jim reached out a hand and touched the curls, knowing they'd melt into mist the minute he did but unable to resist. But they didn't melt away; they remained under his hand, soft and springy. Even short, Blair's hair still felt wonderful. He leaned forward and inhaled deeply, and his nose was filled with the scent that said "Blair". A little changed now, different shampoo, a trace of the Burn underlying it all, but Blair nonetheless. And despite the touching and the smelling, the phantom remained unchanged, and so he took the final step, the one that would dissipate it into thin air. "Blair?"

The eyes were so sad. But the face remained where it was and gave him a smile he would've known anywhere. "Yeah, it's me, Jim. I've come home."

He smiled in answer and leaned forward, burying his face in the short hair, lulled by the sound of his Guide's strong heartbeat, and for a very long time, he knew nothing but the supreme happiness of being able to just hold the dream for however long it lasted. He would ask for nothing more.

***

"I think he's starting to come around."

His head was cradled on something warm and soft. He cracked his eyelids and studied Blair's face above him. Bizarre nightmare, he thought. He'd have to remember to tell Blair about it next time he saw him...

Then he was bolt upright, staring at Sandburg, his heart going a mile a minute. "Shhh," Blair had his hands on his arms, holding him still. "Relax, Jim. Deep breathes in and out, okay?" Jim nodded and complied. "Think we kinda spooked you, man. I'd have never believed you could faint if I hadn't seen it for myself."

"Faint?" Jim was so indignant he stopped breathing deeply. "Sandburg, I've never fainted in my life."

"Not what it looked like from our perspective, Jim." He glanced sideways at Megan sitting on the couch next to Joel, and his head started to throb.

"Hey, hey, calm down." Blair's voice pulled him back from the panic. "This' gotta be pretty overwhelming folks. Is there someplace private I could take him. I don't think he's gonna reorient well with all these people around."

"You can use Cass's room." Jim tried to turn his head and see who'd said that, but Blair wouldn't let him. Instead he coaxed Jim to his feet, maintaining a tight grip on his arm. "Okay. Nicki, is that your name? You wanna take a lantern in and leave it on the dresser? Thanks."

"Blair." He wanted desperately to let his lover know he wasn't usually this out of control but all he succeeded in doing was sounding scared.

"No problem, Jim. You and me need some time alone anyway."

Unresisting, he let Blair drag him into Cassidy's bedroom and close the door. Somehow a lantern had appeared on the dresser, and he was surprised by how Spartan the room looked. "You'd never know anyone slept in here would you?"

"Who sleeps here?" Blair pulled him over to the bed and pushed him onto it, then sat down next to him. "One of the tribe?"

Jim looked at him. "How'd you know they're tribe?" He realized he sounded suspicious, but he still wasn't sure Blair wouldn't disappear if he said the wrong thing.

Blair started to answer and stopped, looking surprised. "I don't know. Cause they're here with you, I guess. You're the Sentinel so they must be your tribe right?"

Jim decided that made sense. "But I didn't pick this tribe. They picked me."

Blair just nodded, a slight smile on his lips. "Where the Sentinel goes, there goes the tribe," he said softly, then he kissed Jim.

Nice dream, Jim decided, as Blair's mouth settled over his. He hadn't had a dream this realistic in a long time. Maybe it wasn't a dream? That made him pull back and look at Blair, who seemed a bit surprised at having been interrupted. "Are you real?"

"Yes."

Jim thought a minute. "Am I real?"

Blair was running his hands over his shoulders. "Well, you feel real enough..."

He trapped the hands and stilled them. "This' serious, Sandburg. Is this...is everything here real? The tribe, and you and Megan and Joel, and the military guy? What we're doing right now, talking, is it real?"

"Oh, man," Blair pulled his hands loose and drew Jim over so his head was resting on his shoulder. "It's been hell, hasn't it?"

"Kinda, yeah." He was not going to cry, dammit, but Sandburg's hands running through his hair felt so good.

"Shh, it's okay. You know, all the time I was trying to get back here, back to you, I kept wondering who's taking care of him? That's what worried me the most, that you didn't have anybody to take care of you. But you did."

"They're not you," Jim sniffled. "They've never been you. None of them could be you, ever."

"I know that."

"They weren't even good replacements. I mean, I care for them, like I did the people in Major Crime, and they looked up to me. It was my job to make sure they were safe and had food, and deliver Shy's baby, but none of them were you." He lifted his head up and kissed Blair, wiping the tears off his face. "You were all I ever wanted. You know that, right?"

Jim didn't think he'd ever get enough of that smile, watery though it was. "I know. You think I spent three years walking back to Cascade because I was afraid you'd find someone else?"

"You walked back?"

"Well yeah. It's not like I could go Greyhound. And believe me, man, you think hitchhiking was dangerous before you so do not want to know what's out there wandering the roads."

"Monsters?"

Blair let himself be tugged into a hug. "Only the human kind, my friend. But I had my gun."

"Did you ever have to use it?" The silence answered that question. "Never mind. You can tell me about it someday, if you want to."

"I don't think I'll ever want to." Blair sounded so tired it made Jim ache. "I think I'd just prefer to pretend the last four years never happened. Like I could. And what's this about delivering someone's baby?"

"Shywolf. She's in labor right now. Oh shit!"

"Hey, calm down Jim, before you stroke out. I didn't spend three years walking back to Cascade to have you die on me 15 minutes after I arrive. Shywolf's in labor?"

"She and Adam are in the front bedroom. Did you meet Adam?"

"Tall blond kid?" Jim nodded. "Okay, he came out when we carried you inside. Thought for a minute he was gonna end the reunion before it even began, but Megan managed to calm him down. And the girl with the Burn, Nicki, that's his sister?"

"And Shy's his wife." Blair looked skeptical. "That's what I thought, but they've got a marriage license from St. Andrew's signed by Father Jacoby, so I'm not going to argue. They showed up last fall."

"What about the red-headed kid with Nicki?"

"That's Bryn. He was the first to show up, about six months after I came up here. Then Cassidy came..."

"Who's Cassidy?"

"The older woman with gray hair. Doesn't talk, but she can cook like nobody's business."

"I don't remember seeing anyone like that." Blair was frowning. "This' her bedroom, right? It doesn't look like it's ever been used."

"So she's a neat freak. She's been here for nearly three years, you probably just didn't notice her with all the people in the living room." Jim covered his face with his hands. "It's really Megan, isn't it? And Joel?"

"Yeah. I swear, Jim, talk about synchronicity. I hadn't been back in Cascade half an hour and I ran into them."

"Joel has the Burn."

Blair sighed. "Yeah. Megan's been taking care of him. He's not doing too well. Maybe bringing him was a bad idea, but he wanted to see you again..."

"Do not ever say that." Jim put a finger to Blair's lips. "Never suggest that bringing anyone we knew from Cascade could be a bad idea. How long's he had it?"

"Two years according to Megan. She doesn't think he's got much longer. He didn't want to die in Cascade. Said it had too many bad memories; if he died there his soul would never be able to get any peace."

"What about the rest of them?"

"Major Crimes? Jim, I'm not sure this' a good time..."

"I'm not going anywhere Blair. I need to know where they are; why they aren't here with you."

Blair nodded. "Um, Simon's dead."

"The Burn?"

"No, he...committed suicide. Killed himself a couple months after you left. Megan said he just couldn't deal with what'd happened to Daryl."

"Rafe and H?"

"Megan doesn't know. Once everything broke down it became a matter of survival. She and Joel were out on a call one day and when they got back," Blair took a deep breath, "the gangs had come in and they killed a lot of the people, but some were missing. Megan never saw them again."

"I should've never left."

"Jim, don't even start..."

"Dammit, Blair, I abandoned them! The Sentinel isn't supposed to abandon his tribe! I should've stayed behind and fought or something."

"You couldn't have. Jim, look at me." Jim reluctantly did. "I'm only going to tell you this once and then I'll never mention it again. Part of a Sentinel's instinct is to know when the tribe is in danger, yes. But there comes a point of you 'knowing' it at a level that's buried down deep. You knew what was going to happen, didn't you? That everything was going to fall apart?" Jim nodded. "So you did what ancient Sentinel's have probably done from the beginning of time. You left the area where there was danger, because you instinctively knew the tribe wouldn't survive. If you'd stayed, eventually all the death and dying would've become too much for you. You would've gone crazy, or zoned, or started killing people at random and been shot like a mad dog. And then Bryn and Cassidy and the other three wouldn't have survived either. And I would've never come back."

"What do you mean you would've never come back?"

Blair ran his hands through his hair and took his glasses off, laying them on the bedside table. "Jim, the only reason I spent three years walking back to Cascade is because I knew you were alive. Don't ask me how I knew, because I couldn't even begin to explain it to you. I just did. And I think if you'd been dead, I would've somehow known that too. And I wouldn't have come back."

"You would've died to?"

"I think I probably would have. And then Joel would have died in Cascade and never been able to rest, and God alone knows what would've happened to Megan. You have to think of our survival as something that 'had' to happen. I know the mystical side of things always made you nervous, but I truly believe we were meant to survive for a reason."

"What reason?"

Blair shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe we'll find out someday. Maybe we'll die never knowing. But there's a reason we survived and a reason we came back together."

"Hell, Sandburg, I let you out of my sight for three years and you grow up."

Blair laughed. "I think I was due for some growing up, man. You can't stay a child the rest of your life. Though if you're lucky, you can remain childish indefinitely."

Jim pulled him into a hug. "Oh Lord, the things I wanna do to you...and I've got a houseful of people and zero privacy."

"We could ask Colonel Macabbria if we could use the half-track."

"He's still here?" Blair nodded. "Hell, why not. We'll make him an official member of the tribe too. He brought my Guide back-he deserves a promotion. Why'd he bring you and Connor and Joel up here anyway?"

"Long story. Let's just say the military's been called in to restore order. Not like that!"

"What'd I say?"

"I can hear you smirking. Enough people in California have gotten riled up that someone's decided to try and take civilization back. And to do that, they need to clean up the cities."

"But they'll leave us alone right?"

"Mmm, think so, yeah. Unless you're fomenting revolution up here."

"Like we have the time?" He released Blair. "I have got to go check on Shy. Wanna come with me?"

"Are you kidding? I am henceforth permanently attached to your side. You'll be lucky if you get to take a bath by yourself."

"Promises, promises."

***

"How long were we in Cass' bedroom?"

"Twenty minutes."

"So why does the front room look like a loading dock?" Jim stared at the four large crates, there was no other way to describe them, they were crates for crying out loud, sitting in the middle of the floor. The tops had been pried open (whoever did it left the crowbar sitting under the Christmas tree), and Bryn, Nicki and Megan were on the floor rummaging through them. Joel was stretched out on the couch, propped up on several pillows and someone's wadded up winter coat, an afghan draped over him, sound asleep, his labored breathing harsh.

"He looks like hell, Chief."

"I know." Blair's hand rested on the back of his neck, massaging it. "He can't eat more than a few bites at a time anymore without it coming back up. He's basically living on liquids, but I think his kidneys are starting to shut down. So he's retaining fluid, which makes his heart and lungs work twice as hard."

"And there's nothing anyone can do?"

"Jim, it's been five years since the Burn happened and the scientific and medical communities are just now starting to try and figure out why it kills you. He might have a chance with diuretics, if any of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers were still operating."

Jim sighed. "What's with the crates anyway?"

"Hey, Mr. Ellison." Nicki had spotted him and Blair; she was grinning. "Look what Meg n' the rest of'em brought." With a flourish she produced a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa. "Junk food!"

"I get at least part a that, Nick," Bryn was digging into the crate closest to him. "Hey cool." He held up a six-pack of Coors. "Beer."

"Which both of you are too young to drink," Jim swooped down and relieved him of it, handing it to Megan. "You brought food?"

"Some of it's food." Megan stood up, dusting herself off. Inside, with the better light, the strain she'd been under was obvious. Her once fiery red hair was streaked with white. "We weren't sure what you'd been living on up here, so Blair thought it would be a good idea to bring some eatables. The rest of it's clothes and stuff."

"Clothes?"

Blair shook his head. "Jim, I can't believe you've survived up here for going on four years and you still have the attention span of a gerbil. We have come to stay."

Jim regarded him a minute, open-mouthed, then looked at the living room, overflowing with crates and people. "I don't know where I'm going to put you all. Shy and Adam have the front bedroom, Cass' got the back," he glanced around him. "Bryn?"

"Yeah?"

"Where's Cassidy?"

"In the kitchen heating water."

"Stay here a minute, Chief." He went down the short corridor to the kitchen. The stove was stoked up with two large kettles of water steaming on top, but Cassidy was nowhere in sight. Puzzled, he came back into the front room. "Nick, Bryn, when's the last time you saw Cass?"

"Right before they arrived." Bryn gestured at Joel and Megan. "When you told us Shy was in labor she went into the kitchen to start heating water. Then you heard that thing coming and we got the guns and went outside. She's not in the kitchen?"

"No, and there's no way she could've come through the front room without you seeing her. Nicki, check the back door and the porch, see if there are any footprints. Is the Colonel still here?" Megan nodded. "Could you go outside and ask him if he's seen a woman wandering around? About Blair's height, she'd be wearing jeans and a red parka. I've got to check on Shy. Bryn, you go outside with Megan and help her look. Nicki, stay here and keep an eye on Joel. Come-on, Chief; time to see if the baby's ready to be born."

***

Jim rapped once on the bedroom door, then opened it and stuck his head in. "How we doing?"

Adam looked up; he was sponging Shy's face off with a wet rag. "She's hurtin' pretty bad, Jim. Don' you have somethin' you could give'er?"

"Not without stopping the labor." He came on into the room, Blair behind him. "Adam, I think you and Blair have already met." He knelt down at the end of the mattress. "Shy? Honey, can you look at me?"

She opened her eyes. "Hi, Mr. Ellison. I been tryin' to breathe like you said, but it hurts."

"I know it does." He motioned for Blair to lean down. "You still remember how to do the breathing exercises?"

"Like I could forget?"

"Shy, Adam, this' Blair. Adam's already met him, but for courtesy's sake: Blair, this' Adam Frees and his wife Shywolf."

Blair raised a hand.

Shy stared at Blair, wide-eyed. "Thought he was dead."

"So did I. But he isn't, and now he's gonna take over coaching your breathing. Adam you stay where you are and keep hold of her hand, Blair'll get on the other side of her." He moved aside to let Blair scoot between the mattress and the bed. "Blair knows all about this breathing stuff. Taught me how to do it when I first found out I was a Sentinel. I figure if he could teach me, you shouldn't have any trouble picking it up. So you do what he tells you, and I'll check and see if you've dilated any further. Okay?" Shy nodded.

Blair cleared his throat. "Shywolf. Pretty name."

"Ain't my real one," Shy's face twisted, as a contraction hit her. "Damn! You really the one who found out he was a Sentinel?" Blair nodded. "He's tol' us all 'bout you. How you moved in with'im n' everythin'."

"You went to Rainier, right?" Adam asked. Blair nodded. "How'd you end up a cop?"

"You didn't tell them that?"

"There were a few things I left out, Chief," Jim grunted, pulling his hand out from under the sheet and wiping it on a towel hanging on the bed frame. "Shy, are you feeling the urge to push?"

"Um hum."

"Good. Cause you're completely dilated. Matter a fact, ever time you have a contraction I can feel the baby's head. So Blair's going to guide you through the breathing and when you get a contraction, don't fight it. Push hard as you can. You need to, you can hold onto Adam and Blair. The important thing is to keep pushing. Blair, you ready to start?"

"Sure." He turned to Shy. "Okay, what you need to do is close your eyes and let as much of the tension flow out as you can. This isn't gonna make the contractions hurt less, but it can help you breath your way through them. Ready?" She nodded. "Now take in as deep a breath as you can and let it out slowly. Good. Keep doing that, deep breath in and let it out slowly. Match your breathing to mine if that makes it easier."

Shy's breath caught. "Contraction?" A sharp nod. "Okay, do what Jim said and push, but keep breathing. In and out, push with the contraction, Shy. Come-on. Push, push, okay, it's eased off some, so relax and breath until the next one." He glanced at Jim, who was kneeling between Shy's legs.

"He's crowning. Looks like he's right in position, too."

"He?"

"Well, whatever sex it is. Won't know till it's born. You guys got a preference?"

"Don' care if it's a boy or a girl, jus' so long as it ain't Burn sick."

"Okay, got another contraction. Take my and Adam's hands, Shy, and push hard as you can. Bear down with it," a small sob escaped Shy's throat. "I know it hurts, but it'll be over soon. Keep pushing, good girl. Jim?"

"One more and I'll have him, or her."

"Shy, breathe, that's right, feel another contraction coming? Push as hard as you can now, don't let up, just keep pushing. Come-on Shy, you can do it."

Shy gave a stifled scream. "Bingo." Jim breathed softly. "Hey, how ya doing kiddo? Blair, could you push the medical kit over here? Thanks. Yeah I know, pretty big place, compared to where you've been." He rummaged in the kit a minute, coming up with a small leather strip, with which he carefully tied off the cord. "Adam, you wanna hand me that shirt?"

A minute later, he straightened up holding a small bundle still trailing its umbilical cord. "You are a very good girl, you know that? So good, she's not even crying. Just looking all around her. Let's meet mom and dad, huh?" He scooted forward and Adam slid in behind Shy, propping her up against his chest. "Adam, Shy, I'd like you to meet your daughter."

Carefully, Shy accepted the baby, folding back the edges of the shirt. "Oh. Adam, she's perfect." The baby focused on Shy's voice. "Hiya little girl. I'm your mommy. An this big ugly thing here is your daddy." Adam was leaning over her shoulder, staring at the baby with a look that could only be described as enraptured. "She supposed to be red?"

"She'll pink up in a few minutes, once her body's adjusted to being out of the womb. And Shy, she really 'is' perfect." They all looked at Jim. "I checked her over. Not a spot on her. She doesn't even have any birthmarks."

"She's not sick?" Adam sounded incredulous.

Jim shook his head. "I'm gonna cut the cord now that it's stopped pulsing." Carefully, he used the knife from the kit to sever the connection between mother and daughter. "Are you still having contractions?" She nodded. "Good. That'll help get the afterbirth delivered. Next time you feel the urge to bear down do it. I think one or two good pushes should be enough."

Blair was bent over Shy's other shoulder. "What are you guys gonna name her?"

Adam shook his head. "We never even talked 'bout names. Too 'fraid she was gonna be born with somethin' wrong."

"I think we ought a name her Jimmi." The baby was rooting at Shy's chest, occasionally latching onto a fold in the sheet. "Mr. Ellison, is it okay to breast feed her now?"

"Best thing you can do. It'll help expel the afterbirth. "You want Sandburg and me to leave?"

"No." Shy casually pulled the sheet down to bare one breast, positioning the baby. Jimmi immediately latched onto the nipple. "Smart girl. Knows what she wants." She was stroking the tiny head covered with feathery wisps of dark hair. "How'd you learn to do that breathin' stuff, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Well, I was born in 1969. My mom was real big on the whole free love, hippie-commune lifestyle. She was midwife at quite a few births. Guess I just picked it up along the way."

That earned a snort from Jim. "Just picked it up along the way my ass. You studied it, Sandburg; you know you did. Adam, you wanna hand me the bucket? Thanks." He let something drop into it, covering it with the towel. "We can get rid of that later."

"No, man, we need to bury it. For good luck."

"Blair, it's 15 degrees outside. The only place we could bury it would be in a snowdrift."

Shy looked at Blair skeptically. "Buryin' it'll make her lucky?"

"Well, some tribes believe it does. So did the early settlers. It was thought that burying the afterbirth would insure that the child's life would be fruitful."

"Why don't you tell her about the tribes where the mother's expected to 'eat it'?" Jim stood up and cracked his neck. "How're you feeling, Shy?"

"Kay. Kinda tired." She looked at the baby and smiled. "You don' mind if we name her after you, do you Mr. Ellison?"

"I'm not sure any kid should have to go through life named Jimmi, but it's better than calling her James. That'd give her an identity crisis for sure. What's her middle name going to be?"

Shy looked at Adam. "I think you should give her a middle name, since I already named her once."

Adam reached out and gently touched the baby's hand, which reflexively curled around his finger. "Whoa. She's got a grip on'er. We could use Nick n' my's mom's name for her middle name."

"Jimmi Catherine." Shy said softly, her attention totally fixed on the baby. "Whatcha think, baby girl? You wanna be named Jimmi Catherine?"

"Um, Shy?" Blair had hoisted himself up and was sitting cross-legged on the bed. "You might want to burp her."

"Oh. How do I do that?"

"Well, you need to get her to let go of the nipple first..."

"Chief?" Blair looked at him. "I'm gonna go out and check on things." Blair nodded absently and went back to his explanation.

Grinning, Jim slipped quietly out the door.

***

The front room was empty, except for Joel asleep on the couch and Nicki sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, eating tortilla chips and salsa. She looked expectantly at Jim. "I heard her scream. Everythin' okay?"

He nodded, collapsing into his chair. "Got themselves a beautiful little baby girl. Adam's gray eyes and Shy's black hair."

"That means she's okay?"

"There's not a spot on her." To his amazement, Nicki burst into tears. "What's the matter?"

"Nothin'," she sniffed, not looking at him. "Jus', I prayed so hard she wouldn' be born Burn sick, ya know? But I didn' think it'd really happen, cause there hasn' been a baby born since the Burn wasn' sick with it."

"It's hard living with it, isn't it?" She nodded. "It's okay to be scared. No one wants to die."

"Bryn tol' me he loves me," her voice was hoarse. "Said it don' matter that I got the Burn an I'm gonna die, he wants to be with me long as I'm alive."

"There's nothing wrong with wanting love, Nicki. I spent so many years alone before I met Blair, and then I was too scared to tell him I loved him because I thought he didn't love me back. We wasted three years dancing around each other until the thing with his dissertation fell apart. I'm just thankful I got a second chance."

She wiped her face on her sleeve. "Can I see the baby?"

"In a while. Shy's pretty worn out from the labor and delivery. She and Adam need to spend some time alone with her. What'd you find out about Cass?"

"Nobody's used the back door since the last snow. Megan, Bryn n' the Colonel are outside lookin' for her now. The Colonel's got flashlights. She couldn' have got through the front door, not with everythin' that was goin' on. Somebody would a noticed her."

"I know." He glanced at Joel. "How's he doing?"

"Not good. Mom started breathin' like that few days 'fore she died." She settled back against the nearest chair, chips and salsa forgotten. "I was talkin' to him earlier, after Blair took you into Cass' room. He was tellin' me 'bout what it's been like down there; even worse than when we left. Him n' Meg were livin' in a hospital place; somewhere they send people who're waitin' to die."

"A hospice?"

"Yeah, a hospice. I guess they busted out. He didn' wanna die there. Said there was too much darkness. If he hadda die, he wanted to die on a mountain top where he could breath the air."

Jim smiled. "He was, still is one of Blair and my's best friends at the PD. I think he knew how we felt about each other before we did. Blair helped him over a pretty rough patch right after they met, got him back on his feet again. He never forgot it."

The door to the front bedroom opened. "You get her burped?"

Blair grinned. "Took some doing. She and the baby are asleep already, Adam's nodding off." He wandered over to where Nicki was and picked up the chips and salsa, collapsing onto the couch. "That was so cool, Jim."

"Sandburg, you know I've delivered babies before."

"Yeah, but I've never actually seen you do it." He dipped a chip in the jar and ate it. "So now you've got yourself a namesake."

"Namesake?" Nicki echoed.

"They're going to name her Jimmi, after Jim. Jimmi Catherine Frees. Which makes you an Aunt."

"They're namin' her after you n' our mom?" Jim nodded. "Cool. What's an Aunt do?"

"Oh, lots of things," Blair handed the chips back to her, sitting the salsa jar on the table. "You get to baby-sit, spoil her rotten."

"Don' need me for that. Adam'll spoil her rotten enough on his own."

They looked up as the door opened, and Megan, Bryn and the Colonel came in, brushing the snow off. "Got a regular blizzard going out there, Mr. Ellison."

"You find anything?" He shook his head. "This is impossible." Jim got up and started pacing. "She couldn't just disappear into thin air. The attic?"

"Already checked." Bryn volunteered. "I doubt she could climb the stairs anyway. She just isn't here anymore"

"Jim?" He looked over at Blair. "You said she didn't talk?" He nodded. "Okay; didn't talk, supposedly slept in a bedroom that looks like no one's been in it since the last time we were up here." Blair was quite a moment, chewing on his lower lip. "If not for the fact you all saw her, I'd think we were dealing with a ghost."

"Sandburg, don't be ridiculous. We all saw her, hell we 'touched' her; she was as solid as any of us."

"So was Gabe."

"I'm not buying it. She's just wandered off and the snow's covered her tracks. We'll go out again tomorrow, when it's light." He looked at everyone. "I have no idea where I'm going to put you. Megan, would it be easier on Joel if he could lie in a bed? We could put him in the back bedroom."

"Jim?" He looked at Joel, who'd opened his eyes. "I'll be fine right where I am. Haven't been this warm in a long time."

"I can sleep on the other couch." Megan offered.

"Nick n' me are used to sleepin' on the floor."

"Colonel?" Do they have any sleeping bags?"

"Already brought them in, Mr. Ellison. I'll sleep in the half-track. It's my responsibility; I can't just leave it sitting there. It's got a heater, though. I'll be warm enough."

"Jim?" Megan has slid on the floor next to the couch where Joel was; she was holding his hand. "You and Sandy take the back bedroom."

"Meg's right." Nicki chimed in. "You haven' seen each other for four years? You got some catchin' up to do."

"I think they're trying to tell us something, Chief."

"Thank God." Blair moved a little closer, to whisper in Jim's ear. "I was afraid I was gonna have to jump your bones in front of the kids."

"Definitely bad for morale. Look, anybody needs anything, Bryn and Nicki can show you where it is. I don't know what sort of food you brought, but we've got beef jerky in the kitchen. And with that..." he looked at Blair and wiggled his eyebrows, "we are off to bed."

"G'night."

"Sleep tight."

"Don't do anything we wouldn'."

"And Jim?" He turned to look at Joel. "You've done a good thing here."

Jim nodded, unable to speak through the tightness in his throat.

***

The bedroom door closed behind them and Blair was immediately in his arms, face pressed against his shirt. It took Jim a minute to realize he was crying. "What's with the tears?"

"I am just so fucking glad to see you again, man. It's like the last four years have been this awful nightmare I couldn't wake up from."

"I know." He rested his chin on the top of Sandburg's head. "I was up here gathering the tribe and you were alone on the road with the monsters. But it's over now."

"You may have to say that a couple dozen times a day for a while."

"I'll say it to you every hour on the hour if you want me to. Damn, I wish I'd gone ahead and put a stove in here!"

"If we undress real quick and get under the covers, maybe we won't notice it so much."

"You are, as always, a genius, Sandburg." He buried his face in Blair's hair. "Know what?"

"What?"

"I'm more nervous now than I was the first time I kissed you."

"Me too. I feel like we're different people. Complimentary, still in love, but different."

"We're bound to be different. Anybody who's lived through the past five years is different." Jim stepped back a little, studying him. "Your hair's even shorter than when you were at the Academy."

"And yours is longer than I've ever seen it," Blair laughed softly. "You've still got most of it left, though. I used to have dreams about finally getting back and finding out you'd gone bald."

"You only loved me for my hair?"

"Nah. Your body's nice too." And Blair leaned forward and kissed him. A real kiss this time. A kiss that was hot and sweet, and promised a whole host of things he'd believed he was going to have to spend the rest of his life dreaming about, which almost gave him another panic attack. Blair seemed to realize this. He angled them around and walked Jim over to the bed, never breaking the kiss. When his knees hit the side of the mattress, it was the most natural thing in the world to fall backwards and take Blair with him.

The kiss lasted until Jim was dizzy from lack of oxygen. He could feel the four years alone humming inside Sandburg's body, setting off a similar vibration in him, and he rolled them over so he was on top. Blair made a happy little noise in the back of his throat and spread his legs, and Jim fit between them as neatly as he had the first time. Four years was too damn long. Four years didn't allow for seduction. Four years had them grinding against each other like a couple of teenage kids in the back seat at the drive-in, hands all over the place. Somehow, Blair managed to get Jim's shirt unbuttoned without ever letting go of his mouth. Somehow, Jim managed to sift through the various layers covering Blair until he encountered bare skin.

They finally had to break for air, both of them panting like they'd run a marathon. Blair looked beyond beautiful; hair messy, lips swollen, long eyelashes brushing his cheeks. "Fuck taking our time." He growled, latching onto Jim's mouth again, and they were off and running, humping against each other, hands scrambling for whatever they could get hold of. Jim's flannel shirt hit the floor, followed by two of Blair's flannel shirts and three undershirts (one Jim's, two Blair's). And the heat was building, the humming was louder, the whimpers Blair made were arrowing straight down to Jim's cock. Blair was just as hard, pressed up against him like he was trying to permanently weld the two of them together.

It seemed to last forever and end too soon. One minute they were writhing against each other, the next somebody hit the switch and the world exploded. Jim had to bury his face in Blair's shoulder to stifle his scream; no sense in scaring the baby half to death. Blair had his lips against Jim's neck, right on the pulse, and was licking down to his collarbone, gasping for air.

Gradually, the humming faded and they lay lax and boneless. Jim's eyes felt impossibly heavy, like he'd been awake forever. Underneath him, Blair twisted a little and mumbled something that sounded like 'Get off me you big lug, I can't breathe.' Jim slid off onto the bed and pulled Blair on top of him, draping him there like a quilt.

"Jim?" The word was more a vibration against his skin than actual speech.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Love you."

He kissed the top of Blair's head "I love you too, Blair Sandburg. I always have and I always will."

***

Suddenly, Jim was awake. For a minute he couldn't figure out where he was or what'd happened, then it all came rushing back. Some time during the night (though he had no memory of it), they'd managed to finish undressing and get under the covers. The sky was just beginning to turn pink outside, and the light through the window illuminated Blair's face as he slept. Jim wished he could smooth the lines in it away, somehow make the last four years disappear, but he knew he couldn't. All he could do was make sure he and Blair were never apart again.

He reached over and rested a hand on the side of Blair's neck, feeling the warmth, the heat of the blood flowing through his veins. And as he'd done every morning for the last four years upon awakening, he let his hearing spread out to take it the rest of the household...

And realized why he'd woke up.

Careful not to wake Blair, he slid out from under the covers, dressing quickly in the cold room. Sandburg turned over and reached out for him, murmuring, and Jim pushed his pillow into Blair's arms, which wrapped securely around it. He held his breath a second until Blair slipped back into sleep, then finished buttoning his shirt on the way to the door.

He eased it open, checking once more to make sure Blair still slept, then squared his shoulders and went down the short hallway into the living room.

Megan was sitting on the floor next to the couch holding Joel's hand. She looked up at him as he came in and tried to smile through her tears, but couldn't quite bring it off.

"I'm so sorry." He said softly, going over and kneeling down next to her. "You should've woke me."

"There's nothing you could've done." She was half-in and half-out of her sleeping bag, wearing what appeared to be a pair of long underwear. Despite the streaks of white in her hair, she looked like a small child who'd woke up too early. He put his arms around her. "He died about an hour ago. I woke up because he quit breathing so horribly. Isn't that awful, that him breathing like he was wouldn't bother me, but I'd wake up when he stopped?" Jim just hugged her tightly as she began to cry again.

Bryn and Nicki were on the other couch, tangled together in their sleeping bags. Bryn's eyes were suspiciously red, but he wasn't crying. Nicki was leaning against him, both arms wrapped around his neck, head on his shoulder. It was obvious to Jim she'd cried herself to sleep. "Do Adam and Shy know?"

Bryn nodded. "Adam came out right after Meg woke up. He was all for waking you up, but Nicki told him not to. Shy's pretty upset."

Jim nodded, looking at Joel. He looked peaceful, as if the strain of the last two years had been magically erased. One hand lay on his chest, the other was still clasped in Megan's. Jim wondered if he'd died that way. Not a bad way to die, holding onto a good friend's hand.

"He got his wish." He glanced over at Nicki, sprawled with her head on Bryn's shoulder. Despite the tears on her face she looked peaceful as well. "He wanted to die on a mountain top where he could breath free air."

***

Colonel Macabbria had a couple of shovels to add to the two Jim owned, but it still took the better part of the morning to break through the topsoil and dig the grave. They worked in shifts as they'd done the morning after the first blizzard, trading off whenever someone got worn out. Megan had wanted to help, but Blair persuaded her to stay inside with Shy and Jimmi.

"She isn't up to it, no matter what she'd like to believe," he told Jim as they rested on the back porch, watching Adam, Bryn, the Colonel and Nicki dig. "You should've got me up when you found out."

"There wasn't anything you could've done." He looked at Shy, who was standing at the back window, Jimmi snugly cradled in one arm. "Should she be out of bed this soon?"

"Jim, pioneer women were expected to give birth in the afternoon and be up in time to fix supper. She's not bleeding any more than normal. As long as she's careful and doesn't tire herself out, she'll be fine. So will Jimmi."

"That's going to take some getting used to. Couldn't they have named her Jessica or something?"

"No they couldn't, because they wanted to name her after you." Blair leaned against him. "I wish he'd lived a little longer. There was so much to talk about."

"Not for him. I don't think he wanted to talk about what it'd been like in Cascade." He studied the group hacking at the ground. "You know, the Chopec believed that every time someone in the tribe died a baby would be born within the next year. And if a baby was born then someone would die. The Gods way of balancing things out so that there'd never be too many or too few in the tribe."

Blair twined his fingers around Jim's and stuck their clasped hands in his coat pocket. "Makes sense."

"Though I don't think the Gods had anything to do with this." Jim gestured around them. "This was entirely mankind's fault. No way we could blame it on the Gods. The Gods would probably get ticked off if we did and strike us all dead on the spot."

"You're babbling again," Blair said gently. "Looks like Nick and Adam are about done in. Ready to get back in the harness?"

"Lead on. Maybe if I work hard enough I'll come up with the answer."

"To what?"

"Where Cassidy went." He stood up, pulling Blair with him and together they went to relieve Nicki and Adam.

***

When they finally finished the grave and came into the cabin, Blair offered to help Megan move the body to the back room and get it ready for burial. Poor Shy was so spooked she'd gone into the bedroom with Jimmi and refused to come out, leaving Jim, Adam and Nicki alone in the front room. Bryn was outside with the Colonel, trying to find something in the half-track's supplies they could use as a shroud.

"Nick n' me've kinda babied her," Adam admitted, taking a sip of the coffee Megan had made. "Lord knows there's plenty a dead bodies in Cascade, but she never saw any of'em up close. She's jus' so young, ya know? We thought we were doin' her a favor."

"It's only natural to want to protect someone you love, but she's not a little kid any more Adam. She's got a baby of her own now. And if you want Jimmi to actually have a real childhood, instead of the sort of life you led, she's going to need you and Shy to act like grown ups."

"He knows that." Nicki looked up from her spot in front of the fireplace. "Nobody had much time to be kids after the Burn came. Too busy stayin' alive. You think maybe there's other babies like Jimmi bein' born?"

"It's possible." Blair was standing in the door to the hallway. "Megan and I talked about it some on the way up here. She and Joel spent so much time in hospitals and hospices, she used to get bored sometimes when he was sleeping and just wander around helping where she could. Nobody even asked if she was a nurse; the medical community was as hard hit by the Burn as anyone. She says most of the babies she saw born had either one or both parents infected with the Burn. You and Shy weren't. And apparently it isn't spread by casual contact like most viruses. So maybe after a while, whatever caused it will weaken and die out completely."

"That don't explain why me n' Shy are okay but Nicki got it."

"That's a question for immunologists." Blair came over and sat down in front of Jim's chair, leaning back against his legs. "From what Bryn told me both of you took care of your mom before she died, but only Nicki got the Burn. And she didn't get it until nearly a year and a half later. I'm assuming that a good proportion of the kids in the gangs had it to, so you would've been exposed to it there. And you 'still' didn't come down with it. Which would suggest that your immune systems are resistant to it. Megan's been taking care of Joel for going on two years and she doesn't have it either. It's like the HIV virus was around the beginning of the 21st century. Researchers were working with groups of women in Africa who were prostitutes and had been continually exposed to AIDS but never came down with it." He sighed. "I'll always wonder what they found out."

The front door opened and Bryn and the Colonel came in, tracking snow with them. The Colonel had a bundle of green canvas in his arms, which he sat down next to Jim's chair. Bryn laid a coil of yellow plastic rope on top.

Jim picked up one of the squares and shook it out. "Shelter halves. Definitely much better than tarp. He nudged Blair with his knee. "You feel up to helping me make the shroud?"

"Yeah." Blair levered himself to his feet. "Let me see if Megan's done."

"What the hell are 'shelter halves'?" Bryn gestured at the pile of canvas.

"The military uses them to make temporary shelters when they don't have the time to put up a regular tent. See these metal rings? You can thread rope through them and then tie it to a tree or whatever's handy." Jim folded the square he held back up and put it on the pile. Since we don't have the time to make a coffin for Joel's body, we're going to make a shroud instead."

"Like in the old books," Adam said, reddening when everyone looked at him. "Hadda read Moby Dick in sixth grade. They wrapped the bodies in layers of sheets 'fore they buried them. Thought they only did it for buryin' someone at sea, though."

Jim shook his head. "It's still common in some modern-day societies. In our case we're doing it because, quite honestly, the idea of just dumping his body into a hole and shoveling dirt on top of it makes me sick." He looked at the Colonel, who was sitting on the couch near the fireplace, warming his hands. "When do you plan to go back to Cascade, Colonel Macabbria?"

"As soon as the burial's over. I'd still have enough daylight to make it down the mountain safely. And Mr. Ellison, don't worry about your tribe, okay? I'm not going to tell the higher-ups anything." He smiled. "Hell. Maybe once things get settled down in Cascade, I might come up here and join you. There's something to be said for wide open spaces."

"Jim?" He looked up at Blair, standing in the door. "Megan's done getting him ready. We should probably get started."

"Good idea." He picked up the pile of canvas and stood. "Bryn, can you get the rope?"

"Yeah. Do I gotta help you make the shroud?"

"No. Sandburg and I can do it ourselves. Just carry the rope into the bedroom and leave it on the dresser." Bryn nodded, slipping past Megan as she came into the room. " How you doing, Connor?"

Megan collapsed onto the couch next to the Colonel "I'm afraid he doesn't look that good, but we haven't had any clothes that actually 'fit' him in a long time. Still, like I told Sandy, I suppose the Lord won't mind if he shows up at the Pearly Gates wearing gym gear. Is there any coffee left?"

"I'll get you a cup, Meg," Nicki volunteered, following Jim and Blair as far as the door to the bedroom. "She gonna be okay?"

"I think so." Blair smiled sadly. "It's hard for her to lose him; he's been the center of her life since the CPD fell to pieces. We'll just have to make sure she's got something to do."

Bryn slipped out of the bedroom looking rather pale, and Nicki latched onto his arm, dragging him into the kitchen behind her.

Jim sighed. "Best get it over and done with."

***

Just inside the door he laid the canvas on a chair and walked over to the bed, staring at the body. "Oh God, Sandburg; he doesn't even 'look' like Joel."

"I know," Blair came up behind him, slipping an arm around his waist. "Whenever I think of Joel, I always think of talking him through disarming that bomb in the church. He was so scared, but he trusted me anyway. And I didn't have the vaguest idea what I was doing. I could have gotten us all killed."

"He knew," Jim said softly, smiling at Blair's raised eyebrows. "He said to me later 'Jim that kid doesn't know one wire from another does he?' And of course I had to tell him no, you didn't. He never held it against you though. Always said if it wasn't for you he would've never gone back to being Captain of the bomb squad."

"Always embarrassed the hell out of me when he did. And, of course, the ostrich chili incident..."

"Like you didn't do that deliberately, just so you could get away and hunt me down?" Jim rubbed his forehead. "It's hard to get a handle on them being dead, ya know? Simon, maybe H and Rafe, and now Joel. We never had a chance to talk."

"I think just being here was worth all the talk in the world," Blair gave him a squeeze. "Better get at it."

"Yeah." Jim retrieved the canvas squares, bringing them to the bedside. "It's not gonna take as many as I thought. I doubt he weighs over 120 pounds. But I'll double layer it, to be on the safe side."

"Um, not wanting to put bad thoughts in your head, but what's the likelihood of, say, wolves trying to dig the body up?"

"I haven't actually 'seen' a wolf in nearly three years. Sometimes late at night I can hear them howling, but they're pretty far away. Higher up in the mountains, I think. Doubt they want to meet humans any more than we want to meet them." He took his knife out of his pocket, measured the rope out, and then cut it. "The Colonel said he's going to leave right after the burial."

"You think anyone might want to go back with him?"

"I don't know. I'm going to get everyone together beforehand and ask them. I mean I know you weren't planning on leaving, but that doesn't mean Megan might not want to. Or Bryn and Nicki."

Working together, it took them less than half an hour to get the body covered. Finally, Jim stepped back. "I think we've done all we can do. And we've got some shelter halves and rope to give back to the Colonel Did you hear what he said about not telling anyone we were up here?"

"I'm having one of my rare psychic moments," Blair was recoiling the rope. "I foresee that come spring, we're gonna have to build another cabin. Maybe two." Jim shot him a look. "I imagine that Adam and Shy would like to have a place of their own, especially now that they've got Jimmi. And I wouldn't be surprised if Bryn and Nicki wouldn't mind some privacy, too. I mean, face it Jim; you're a damn good Sentinel, but now that I'm back I'm going to take over the Shaman duties. And I think it would benefit everyone's spirit if we weren't all living in the same damn house."

"Point taken." He folded the canvas squares back into a bundle. "Ready to face the tribe?"

"Yeah, yeah, wait a minute." Blair dug deep in his jeans pocket, finally pulling out a crumpled piece of paper. "Megan found this on the dresser. It's addressed to you."

Jim took it, studying the TO JIM written on the outside. "Don't recognize the writing. It was on the dresser?" Blair nodded. "There wasn't anything there last night."

"Megan said it was stuck under the edge of a doiley. White paper, white doiley, you probably just didn't notice it."

"Whatever." He sat down on the edge of the bed and opened it:

Jim,

I'm sorry I had to leave all of you like this but my job's done. I've accomplished what I was sent for and it's time to go home for good. I love you all so much, especially Shy and the baby. Maybe when she's older and can understand, maybe you can tell her I wanted to stay and help her take care of Jimmi, but the choice wasn't mine. Blair's here now, and you and the rest of the tribe are safe.

Tell Nicki not to give up hope. Tell Megan to take good care of herself; even though Joel's gone, she's still caring for two. And tell Blair that Kendra says Hi.

Cassidy

He gradually became aware of Blair calling him from somewhere far away. "Jim? Jim, come on here, man, give me a sign you're still with us! Jim?"

His eyes flew open and he looked around wildly. He was lying on the floor in the back bedroom. Blair had taken a pillow off the bed and put it under his head, he was stroking Jim's face gently. "Whoa. Scared the shit outta me, keeling over like that! I hope you haven't been zoning like that the last three years."

"This is the first time I've zoned since I came up here," Jim looked down at his empty hands. "Where's the note?"

"This?" Blair held it up. Jim snatched it away and unfolded it, to find himself staring at a blank piece of paper. He refolded it and checked the outside. TO JIM was still written there, but the inside was blank.

"What happened to the message?"

"Message?" Blair looked puzzled. "Jim, there 'wasn't' a message. That's what spooked me so bad. You opened it up, turned white as a sheet, and zoned out major league."

"There was a message in it," his voice was shaking, and he took a deep breath to steady it. "There was a message. " He grabbed Blair's hand. "Did you ever know anyone named Kendra Cassidy?"

"Kendra Cassidy?" Blair's brow furrowed. "The name's sort of familiar, yeah. Kendra Cassidy." Blair paled. "Jim, that's not possible. Your Cassidy couldn't be Kendra. It couldn't. There's no way they could be the same person."

"Why not?"

"Blair swallowed hard. "The Kendra Cassidy I knew killed herself 10 years ago. She was one of my senior advisors when I went into my grad courses. Older woman who'd decided to go back to school after her kids grew up. She was short, on the heavy side, had prematurely gray hair. We used to joke about how she should dye it because it made her look older than she really was."

"Why'd she kill herself, Chief?"

"Three years after she started classes, her husband died. Totally unexpected; had a heart attack at work one day and keeled over at his desk. He'd just turned 52. He and Kendra had been married for almost 30 years, had three kids. He'd supported her going back to college. They were one of those couples that did everything together. She just couldn't get past his death. She'd built her whole life around him. The doctors tried giving her different antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help. She got more and more withdrawn and listless, started missing classes," he took a deep breath. "She wasn't there one morning when I showed up for Advanced Psychology. It was the only course we had together. The teacher told us that one of her kids had tried to call her the night before and kept getting a busy signal, got worried, and went over to the house. Turned out she'd been stockpiling pills. She'd mixed herself a cocktail of about 200 different ones and taken it. By the time her son showed up she'd been dead for at least six hours. She'd taken all the phones off the hook and left a note saying she was sorry to do this to everyone, but she just couldn't live without Danny."

"Why would she have wanted to come here? From what she said in the note, she was 'watching' the tribe and me until you came back. She talked like she'd specifically been 'sent' here to watch us."

Blair ran a hand through his hair. "She was one of the few people outside the anthropology department I ever told about my Sentinel research. The idea fascinated her; she was willing to sit and listen to me ramble on for hours about what Burton had discovered. I think she would've liked to be an archaeologist, but she thought she was too old. And she was a devout Catholic, so the fact that she killed herself meant she couldn't have a funeral mass or be buried next to Danny. Her oldest daughter quit the church because of that."

"Catholic's believe in purgatory, right?" Blair nodded. "So even though she'd killed herself, if she did enough penance she could eventually get to heaven? And 'we' were her penance. The Powers that Be sent her here to make sure I didn't zone or do anything stupid before you got back."

"Jim, there's no way in the world any one would ever believe that."

"They don't have to. She said in the note that her job was done and it was time to 'go home.' That's why you never saw her. You being here made her presence unnecessary. Remember what you said about ghosts? And you told me yourself once you believed that Gabe was an angel. So did Connor. I don't think she was an angel, more like a lost soul looking to make things right. Not speaking was probably one of the conditions of her being here."

Blair sat in silence a minute. "If not for the fact we've been through some weird-ass shit since we met, I'd be inclined to think you hit your head when you fell. But if what you said was true, that everyone here 'did' see her and touch her, you've never been prone to hallucinations. Hell, you were usually the one running the furthest the fastest when I suggested something might be outside the realm of the ordinary. But why were you the only one to see the message?"

"Because I'm the Sentinel, I guess. It was 'me', specifically, that she was here for. Maybe she knew the rest of the tribe would come, or it might have surprised her as much as it did me. But she had to stay here for my sake until you came back."

"So, what do we do?"

Jim sat up. "Nothing. There's no way any of the kids would believe us anyway. Shy's nervous enough as is, what with Jimmi's birth and Joel dying. I'm not going to be the one to tell her that her mother figure never existed in the first place. As far as we know she wandered off during the blizzard. Maybe she couldn't take the house being so crowded or deal with the new people. Cass was always a bit odd anyway. Gimme a hand?" Blair pulled him to his feet. "We need to go out and ask everyone what they want, then bury Joel. The Colonel was hoping to leave before it gets too dark. So we're together on this?"

Blair nodded. "I never saw the message anyway. But there's no way you could've known about Kendra."

***

The living room was subdued when they came in. Megan had evidently used the front bedroom to change; she was wearing a pair of jeans and a bright green sweater, both of them too big for her. The Colonel sat next to her on the couch, staring into the fireplace. It surprised Jim to see that Shy'd come out and brought the baby. She was sitting next to Adam, looking fairly relaxed.

"Got the body ready," Jim said, sliding into his chair. "Before we do the burial though, I need to ask everyone a question. "The Colonel's going to be leaving after we bury Joel. Do any of you want to go back to Cascade with him?"

There was some whispering, then Megan spoke. "There's nothing down there to go back to, Jim. Now that Joel's dead, I'd just as soon stay here with you and Sandy. If you don't mind putting me up?'

"Not in the least. Truth be told, Sandburg suggested we might need to build a couple more cabins once spring comes. Depending, of course, on what the rest of you decide. Adam?"

Adam nervously scrubbed his hand over his chin and looked at Shy, who nodded. "Shy an me'll be stayin'. Jimmi deserves a chance to have a better life'n we could give her in Cascade. An' Blair's pro'ly right; come spring, maybe we can build another cabin for just us n' Jimmi. An whoever else might come along. Ow!" He looked at Shy, who smiled sweetly. "Course, that won't be for a few years yet."

Jim allowed himself a grin. "Bryn, Nicki, what about you?"

"I wanna stay here," Bryn said softly. "There's nothing in Cascade for me either. But as much as I love Nicki, she's gonna have to make up her own mind."

"Like I don' usually?" She smacked him in the arm. "Only family I've got left's here. An that includes you, ya jerk."

Blair looked at Jim. "Ah, young love. There's nothing like it."

"You're all staying?" Everyone nodded, including Blair. "Guess you're gonna have to go back by yourself, Colonel."

He chuckled. "Figured I would anyway. Truth to told, I'd like to stay here myself. But if I don't come back they'll send out a search party for me. And I promised I'd keep your secret. Might even back and visit occasionally, though. So. You want me to help you carry the body out?"

***

It occurred to Jim later that he could've probably carried Joel's body out on his own, no more than he weighed. Still, it was good to have the Colonel there to help him and Blair lower it into the grave.

When it was done, he stepped back and looked around him. Everyone was there; even Shy, who, against Adam's protests, had wrapped Jimmi up in a quilt and come out anyway. Bryn and Nicki were actually holding hands. Blair was on his right side, while Megan stood slightly off to the left, wrapped in Joel's parka. Jim wondered if she knew yet what Cassie had known without seeing her?

He cleared his throat, "We're here today to bury the body of Joel Taggert, a good friend to some of us, though unknown by the rest of you. Joel was always special to Blair and I; he took Sandburg under his wing almost immediately. Hell, I think he knew we were in love before we did. And I just want to say to him, and to Megan, that I will never forgive myself for not bringing you with me when I left."

"He wouldn't have come," Megan shook her head. "Right up until he got too sick to work anymore, Joel believed that 'someone' had to try and keep order. After Simon died," her voice broke, but she pushed on, "he took over as acting Captain. Everyone respected him. He kept us going longer than I think we would've otherwise. He refused to give Cascade to the gangs for as long as he could. And even after he had to admit defeat, he did what he could where he could. It's only been the last year or so, when the Burn got really bad, that he started talking about getting away from the city. I'm just glad he got a chance to do that before he died."

"He was a nice man." Jim was surprised when Nicki spoke up. "I didn' know him like you did, but we talked some last night. He tol' me not to give up hope. That jus' cause I had the burn didn' mean I was gonna die with it. He said we all ought a be glad you'd taken us in like you did, that Shy n' Adam's baby had a better chance as a normal life here. I wish he'd a lived longer, so we could talk more. Said I was pretty, too. I jus' laughed, but he said, 'Well, that young man with the red hair seems to think you're easy on the eyes.' I was s'prised he'd even noticed, but I think that was the kinda man he was. He noticed things."

"Yeah, he did." Blair took up the story. "When I first went to work with Jim, he was Captain of the bomb squad, but he was on leave because of a bad experience he'd had. Someone got killed and he felt it was his fault. Was afraid to go anywhere near a bomb. But we had some whacko blowing up African-American churches, and somehow or other he and I ended up with a ticking time bomb and no way out but to disarm it. And I lied to him, told him I knew which wires to cut. He was too scared to even make a move, yet he trusted me enough to cut the two wires. And by some miracle, they were the right two." Blair laughed softly. "He always thanked me for helping him get it together. And when he made Detective, he used Jim and I as his model of what he wanted to be. And when everything fell apart with my diss, he was one of the ones who promised to keep Jim's senses a secret. I'm gonna miss him."

"We all will." Jim realized he was crying, but didn't care. "I've never been good at praying or singing hymns, anything religious, but I know Joel was a regular churchgoer. And what we've buried here is just his body. His soul's gone someplace better." He wiped his eyes. "Does anybody know any hymns? I feel like we should sing or something."

Shy stepped forward. "I know one. My real mama used to sing it to me at night for I went to bed. She died when I was 10, but I think I 'member most a the words." She handled the bundle containing Jimmi to Adam. "Don' sing too good, but Mr. Taggert seemed like a man who'd want you to sing anyways.

"Some glad morning when this life is over, I'll fly away. To my home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away. I'll fly away O Glory, I'll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away..."

Megan chimed in first, then the Colonel. "I'll fly away, O Glory, I'll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away."

"Just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away," Adam and Nicki took up the refrain, "to a land where joy will never end, I'll fly away. I'll fly away O Glory, I'll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away."

"I'll fly away O Glory, I'll fly away." And nobody was more amazed than Jim that he could still remember the words from when he was a kid. "When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away."

He looked at Blair, who was staring at him, open-mouthed. "I know. I didn't think I had it in me either."

Jim shook Colonel Macabbria's hand. "I want to thank you for everything you've done, helping with the burial, looking for Cass. You didn't have to do any of it."

The Colonel chuckled. "The truth, Mr. Ellison, is that this is as close to normal was my life's been for nearly five years. A man could get addicted to living up here where it's open."

Megan stepped forward and hugged him. "Thank you so much for bringing us up here. I honestly don't think I would've survived if Joel had died in Cascade. Now," she glanced at the group gathered in the front yard, "at least I'm with friends."

Blair shook his hand, and then pulled him into a hug. "Be safe, man. The monsters are still out there."

They stood and watched as he went into the half-track, closed the front ramp, and slowly swung it around in a wide circle. Only when it finally disappeared over the hump in the road did Jim look at the rest of them. "Well, I don't know about you people, but I'm starved. Deer steaks okay with everyone?" They nodded. He looked at Blair. "Wanna help?"

"Lead on, Oh Great Sentinel of the Cascade Mountains." Blair was grinning as he followed Jim up onto the porch. Behind then, there was the 'thunk' of a snowball hitting someone, then Nicki yelling, "I'll get ya for that, ya jerk!" Jim turned, to find Megan, Adam, Nicki and Bryn engaged in an all-out snowball war. Shy was sitting on the front porch steps, humming "I'll Fly Away" to the quilted bundle that was Jimmi.

He looked at Blair and smiled. "I think the tribe's gonna be just fine, Chief." Then he threw one arm around Sandburg's neck, and together they went inside to get on with the business of living.

The end, for now...to be continued...

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Author's Acknowledgements: Many and bountiful thanks to Lisa for dragging me into this in the first place, to Patt and Mary for betaing above and beyond the call of duty, my sonz for not getting too overly testy with Mom hogging the computer day and night, and the MME group for convincing me I had it in me.