For personal use and select distribution only © December 1997 by Maureen Perkins

Christmas Gifts

by Maureen Perkins

By the time Sully got to the church, the party was in full swing. After hanging his coat by the door, he brushed past a group singing Christmas carols and surveyed the room. The benches had been moved out, the walls decked with green wreaths and red ribbon. Tables filled with holiday treats lined the walls, the center left open for dancing. Through the laughter and conversation a small band could be heard tuning their instruments in one corner.

As always, he was looking for her. In a moment his eyes came to rest on Colleen and Brian, who stood on one wall with a group of their friends. Matthew was close by, sampling the food. Sully greeted him a little distractedly, and was about to ask where Dr. Mike was when he felt skirts brush his leg. He turned, and there she was. Quite close.

She hadn't seen him either until a few moments ago, and when she came up next to him, hadn't counted on his turning around so quickly. She gazed up at him, a bit wide-eyed. Transfixed by his intense blue gaze, she was vaguely aware that he was wearing a plaid shirt that exactly matched the shade of those eyes. A lock of his thick brown hair had fallen onto his forehead. He smelled faintly of leather, wood smoke and damp leaves, with traces of something exciting she couldn't identify.

When Sully saw her he could only think that he had never seen anything so lovely. Those eyes, one brown and one hazel- green, held his own with unexpected power. Her breast rose and fell quickly and her cheeks were flushed with more than the heat of the room. She wore a deep red dress with white trim, its neckline scooping just low enough to attract attention while maintaing mystery. Sprigs of holly decorated her golden brown hair, which cascaded down her back and over her shoulders, leaving a few strands to curl at her temples. A delicate gold necklace encircled her bare throat.

After a few seconds they realized their proximity and the undue length of their gaze. Each took a small step back and looked away.

"Hello Sully," Mike said demurely, her eyes fixed on a plate of cookies.

"Dr. Mike," he acknowledged, and cleared his throat, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.

Meanwhile, Matthew watched with an ill-concealed half-grin on his face. "Nice party," he said, eyeing the couple.

"Yes, it is," Mike replied, somewhat unsteadily. Then with an attempt at casual conversation she said, "Have either of you tried Grace's pecan pie? It's delicious. I'll have to ask her for the recipe. Well --" she amended under their dubious looks, "I'll have her give it to Colleen." They all laughed.

Brian and Colleen appeared, saying hello to Sully. Brian chirped, "This is a great party, isn't it Sully? They're gonna have dancing and everything. Just like Boston," with a hopeful look toward the couple. They took the hint, smiling. Mike ruffled his hair with a small laugh. Looking up, she found Sully's eyes on her. He looked quickly away. At that moment Matthew, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, ushered Colleen and Brian away with promises of candy canes for his little brother and carol singing for his sister.

"Can I get you some punch?" inquired Sully. Mike nodded, the corner of her mouth turning up slowly. When he returned to offer her one of the cups, she, with a sweet smile, handed him a plate filled with snacks: gingerbread, frosted cookies and a thin slice of the pecan pie. Sully started with a bite of pie, raising his eyebrows appreciatively. She took a bite too, watching him, then sipped some punch. He followed suit, his eyes never leaving hers. They finished the food in that manner, never even noticing when Dorothy passed by ready to chat with them, but thought better of it and turned away with a smile.

As they were finishing the food, the music and dancing started. Sully took Mike's plate and cup from her and placed them on a table. Then, before he could lose his nerve, he offered her his arm. She took it, eyes sparkling, and the two moved onto the dance floor. Mike felt so right in his arms that Sully hardly thought about his limited dancing skills. After three dances they were still going strong, not wanting to break their original touch.

The fourth dance was faster. Couples whirled about the floor. Sully watched them, and feeling adventurous, tried to twirl Mike away from him and back again. She grinned at him and obliginingly spun around a couple times -- but Sully kept on spinning her. "Sully! What are you doing?" she laughed breathlessly. Finally he stopped, and pulled her close to him just as she lost her balance from dizziness and fell against his shoulder. He steadied her as they laughed together, but grew serious again looking into each other's eyes. They were already on the edge of the dance floor and Sully whispered, "Let's go outside." Mike agreed, suddenly wanting to get a breath of cold night air after the heat and noise of the party.

Sully helped her into her cloak, then put on his own dark brown jacket. It had started snowing. They walked a little way out into the meadow and stopped by a fir tree. Sully's left arm around her, he reached for her hand and held it. She tucked their joined hands under a fold of her wool cloak for warmth. Tilting her head back, Mike looked at the sky. Blue-shadowed grey clouds covered the horizon, but one clear patch was visible, full of bright stars. The moon, though hidden, shed its light on a bordering cloudbank, turning its edges to silver.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she breathed.

"Yes," replied Sully. Something in his voice made her turn her head. He had been looking at her the whole time. Reaching out, he brushed wisps of hair from her face. Mesmerized by the deep darkness of her eyes in the twilight, his fingertips lingered on her cheek. His touch on her skin was so light she could hardly believe it was really happening. Finally she blushed and looked down, only to glance back at him with a crooked smile.

They both began to speak at once, paused, then laughed.

"You first," he said.

"I wanted to invite you to Christmas dinner. It is your turkey, after all."

Eyes dancing with amusement, he remembered the look on her face the day before, when he had appeared at the homestead, bow slung over his shoulder, and presented her with the dead bird he held by its feet. This was one aspect of Colorado Springs she had yet to get used to.

"I'd love to," he replied. "I was going to ask you to go on a walk with me tomorrow." With a glance at the sky, "Unless the snow's too deep."

"I'd love to," she echoed. Again they shared a long gaze, snowflakes in their hair. One landed on Mike's lashes. She blinked and smiled.

"Come on," he whispered, and they walked hand in hand back to the church. Light, music and laughter spilled from the building into the winter night. They paused a moment in the doorway, reluctant to rejoin the party. Sully glanced up to find that they were standing under mistletoe. He looked back at Mike to gauge her reaction, a gentle invitation on her face. Her eyes flickered up, then down, focusing on a button of his jacket. She was very still. He took her elbow, drawing her closer. His other hand touched her face, cupping her cheek in his palm. Slowly, she met his eyes. As he leaned toward her, his fingers twined in the thick hair behind her ear. She tilted her face up to meet him and closed her eyes.

"There you are!" Startled, they let go of each other as the three children emerged from around the corner. Seeing the blushing Mike and flustered Sully, Colleen began giggling, realizing what they had interrupted.

"We were wondering what happened to you two," said Matthew, still smirking.

"It's almost time for the tree lighting," cried Brian, and he pulled them both back into the room, chattering about what they'd missed at the party.

As they passed Matthew, Mike thought she heard him say to Colleen, "I knew that mistletoe would come in handy."

Much to Brian's dismay, the tree lighting had to be cut short, due to the increasingly heavy snow and strong winds. Matthew joked with Colleen that they'd have another blizzard this year, but at least she hadn't missed the party. The family walked back to the clinic and their wagon, ready to go home for their Christmas Eve celebration. As they neared the building, Mike saw a strange horse standing next to Flash and heard someone pounding on the clinic door. She came around the corner to find a man desperately knocking.

"Dr. Quinn, thank God," he cried when he saw her.

"What is it, what's wrong?"

"It's my little boy, he's sick. He's got a terrible fever, please you gotta help him."

"Where is he?"

"At home, with my wife."

"Show me where it is, let me just get my bag," Mike said, opening the clinic door. She emerged again, had put up her hood and was quickly hugging the children before Sully intervened.

"Dr. Mike, wait. Let me go with you."

"Sully, I need you to make sure the children get back safely."

"But the snow, it's--"

"Don't be ridiculous, if you took Bear the children wouldn't have any way to get home," she said as she mounted Flash. "This man's son needs me and don't worry, I'll be fine." With that she kicked the horse into a gallop to follow the other rider, disappearing into the swirling snow.

Mike sighed and straightened up from the narrow bed. The little boy was resting comfortably. "He's going to be fine," she told the anxious parents. "He'll need a cup of the fever tea once every two hours until his temperature is back to normal. And make sure he gets plenty of rest." Thankfully, the child wasn't seriously ill. With the quinine and tea he was looking better already. Mike picked up her medical bag, saying she'd check on him in a few days. The couple thanked her, asking if she didn't want to stay the night because of the snow, or at least have some hot tea before leaving. She politely turned them down. "Besides, it seems to be letting up," she lied, glancing out of the window at the storm. Mike wanted to be home on Christmas Eve -- and she didn't want to burden this family. The cabin was drafty and plain, and the couple's cheeks rather gaunt, her doctor's eye noticed. Staying would require them to share Christmas dinner with her, and it was obvious they didn't have quite enough for themselves.

The husband helped her into her cloak as the wife began stammering, "We, uh, don't have much money right now, but the next time we're in town, maybe --"

Understanding immediately, Mike broke in gently. "That's all right. Consider it a Christmas gift."

"God bless you ma'am -- Doctor," said the man gratefully. "Let me bring your horse around for you."

"No, you stay in here where it's warm, I'll find her," Mike said, reaching for the door. "And merry Christmas," she smiled.

As Flash's hoofbeats and Michaela's flying cloak melted into the snow, Sully let out a frustrated sigh. Here was yet another example of her stubborness. The words, "All right...I'll go by myself!" flashed through his mind. Whether it was getting water samples to protect townsfolk from mercury poisoning, or riding out to help a sick child, Mike never thought of danger to herself. She was always so quick to dismiss it, to tell him to watch the children while she went off into God- knows-what. But, for all that he worried, and for all that she could so innocently get under his skin like that -- he loved her for it.

Smiling inwardly, Sully ushered the reluctant children into the wagon. He suggested that they all help with dinner so it could be ready when Dr. Mike got back.

Mike had underestimated the intensity of the storm. Huddling into her cloak, she clung to Flash's mane, trying to see the trail through driving needles of ice. The ride seemed to go on and on. Mike tried reasoning with herself -- of course it was taking a long time, they had come at a full gallop and now Flash was only walking, because the visibility was so low, and it was too cold and windy to go any faster. But Mike couldn't get rid of the nagging doubt that she had missed a turn somewhere. She scolded herself for not paying more attention on the ride out.

As the storm became even worse, she realized that this was by now a full-fledged blizzard. Fighting panic, she tried not to think about frostbite, hypothermia, death from exposure. No -- no, she would be fine. She and Flash were keeping each other warm, and it couldn't be much further now. To calm herself, she imagined the scene which awaited her at the homestead. The cabin would be warm, full of firelight. Wolf and Pup would be curled on the hearth. The children, dressed in their holiday finery, would be putting the finishing touches on the tree decorations. Matthew might be making popcorn and Brian would be eating it, or shaking the presents when no one was looking. Colleen would be preparing their Christmas feast -- something Mike had planned on doing with her. She tried not to think about the food -- she was too cold and hungry. The Christmas party seemed such a long time ago, with its cookies and pecan pie...and Sully bringing her a cup of punch and holding her under the stars.

She was jerked painfully back to reality as a terrible gust of wind tore her hood from her head. Reaching back to pull it, up she started in eerie horror as she heard the long drawn-out howling of hungry wolves. Immediately, a terrified Flash shied to the side of the path. Her flanks brushed a thorny shrub and she reared, screaming. Mike grasped for a hold on her mane, but just then a heavy, freezing mass dropped on her. She slipped from the saddle and hit the ground, knocking the wind out of her. When she could breathe again, Mike fought her way out of a small snowbank, brushing ice from her face and coat as she stood up. A tree by the roadside had dumped a large load of snow from its branches directly onto the horse and rider. Flash was no where to be seen. Turning in a circle, Mike called her, but the wind snatched her voice and flung it in all directions. Shivering, she squinted through the driving snow. The horse had been right there! In the noise of the storm Mike hadn't even heard her hoofbeats. She was alone.

"She probably saw the storm was getting worse and decided to stay the night."

Sully nodded, not taking his eyes from the window. "I know. You're right, Matthew...that's probably what she did."

They had been exchanging words like this for nearly an hour. Everyone's original holiday cheer had dissipated quickly when Mike failed to return. Colleen had been adamant that they not eat until she got back, and Brian even refused to open one of his presents without her. They had finally eaten dispiritedly, making half-hearted comments like, "I'm sure she'll be here any minute," "She's got enough sense not to go out in a blizzard," "But she promised she'd always be with us on Christmas Eve," "We can just have Christmas Eve tomorrow night instead," and all sorts of reassurances that Dr. Mike was fine, of course. But Sully felt a strange uneasiness in the pit of his stomach, one that was hard to dismiss as simple worry.

'Well Flash, I hope you make it home all right,' Mike said to herself. She wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself, and leaning into the wind, started walking up the trail. 'I should have known Sully would be right,' she thought ruefully. 'His concern was justified this time. Now he'll never let me out of his sight.' That made her smile -- not a bad thing, certainly.

It was nearly midnight. Colleen and Brian had finally fallen alseep on Mike's bed. Sully and Matthew kept vigil, looking out of the windows, pacing, making useless remarks about the storm in hushed voices. Neither wanted to admit their fear that Mike was out there somewhere -- not out loud and not to themselves. Surely the family had let her stay with them. But Sully could not see her doing such a thing. No, she would ride home through a blizzard, through fire, through anything to be with her loved ones on Christmas Eve. He would worry and worry, but eventually she would show up, perfectly fine, and make light of it all.

Wouldn't she?

Mike was no longer smiling a few hours later. Floundering through snow drifts, too cold to shiver, she stumbled through the forest, the snow still so thick it was impossible to see more than a few steps in front of her. She had lost the trail a long time ago and had no idea where she was. Her state of mind was not improved by the wolf howls she had been hearing ever since Flash disappeared. She imagined them hunting her horse, coming after her...but it was just the wind, she told herself. A blizzard could make all sorts of strange sounds. Besides, what was foolish enough to be out in a blizzard (other than herself)? Now Mike had to keep reminding herself why she was walking -- to keep warm. If she stopped she'd freeze. It was hard to remember even that much -- the cold was numbing her mind as well as her face, hands and feet. She tried reciting poetry, Emerson, medical facts, anything to stay as alert and calm as possible -- but a dreadful weight was pressing against the back of her mind. Where was she? Was she walking in circles? Would the blizzard let up? How long could she keep going? What would her family think had happened to her? These doubts weighed ever more heavily on her, until she felt as though they were sucking the strength from her legs, dragging her down into the cold and dark.

Mike clenched her teeth, and searched her mind for a distraction, for something to focus on. Finally, she returned to the scene at the homestead. Warmth, firelight, the children...Sully. Mike concentrated on Sully -- his blue eyes, his knowing smile, his gentle fingers on her cheek, his arms. His arms safely around her. She could almost smell the unique woodsy scent of his hair, feel the softness of his jacket, the delicious warmth of his body...A powerful gust of freezing grit buffeted her, making her stumble dizzily to the side. She fought to keep her balance, but something under the snow, a tree root or branch, caught her foot and she staggered forward. The ground fell away under her and she was slipping, tumbling, falling. The world became nothing but a whirl of freezing white, stabbing pain, and finally, icy blackness.

Sully jerked his head up.

"What?" He had dozed off, sitting by the window.

"I said I think I'll turn in," Matthew repeated. "You should try to get some sleep too...There's nothing we can do now."

He nodded and Matthew turned, going into the alcove. The last time Sully had looked at the clock it was after midnight, but he was determined not to go to bed -- he couldn't. Suddenly, his dream came back to him in vivid and horrifying detail. It was Mike, lying in the snow. Her cloak was spread out around her, her tangled hair half covering her face. Her eyes were closed and she was so pale, so deathly still. Drops of crimson stained the white blanket of snow...Sully held clenched fists to his eyes, attempting to blot out the picture. It was a nightmare, only a dream. Instead he tried to imagine her sleeping peacefully in a makeshift bed at the sick boy's home, safe and warm. Concentrating on this image, Sully didn't notice himself falling asleep again...

Again Sully awoke with a start. He found that his head was pillowed on his arms, leaning on the windowsill next to the bed. That dream had returned. However, he hadn't merely dozed this time. The weak grey light told him it was close to dawn, and cleaning a space on the foggy window pane, he saw that the blizzard was over. He surveyed the glittering landscape, trying to determine the depth of the drifted snow.

Sully heard a sound behind him and turned. Matthew stood by the fireplace and Colleen and Brian were stirring on Mike's bed. "Sleep all right?" Sully asked Matthew.

He shook his head. "You?"

" neither."

Colleen sat up sleepily, rubbing her eyes. "Sully --?"

"Is Ma back?" asked Brian. Before he could answer, he was distracted -and filled with dread- by Matthew's expression. He was staring over Sully's shoulder out of the window.

"Oh my God." He jumped up and ran to the door as Sully and the children followed in alarm. They flung open the door and saw Flash standing by the corner of the stable.

"Ma?!" Brian and Colleen cried, scanning the yard. Matthew and Sully looked at each other. Mike's medical bag still hung from the saddle horn.

Colleen, seeing this, put her hand to her mouth. She looked from Matthew to Sully, tears coming to her eyes.

"What happened to Ma?" Brian demanded. Sully hesitated no longer. Leaving Matthew to comfort his siblings, he began collecting gear from inside.

Wolf was having trouble finding Mike's trail. Sully knew well how the snow buried everything -- scent, tracks...all evidence erased. They might never find her. He pushed that possibility from his mind, telling himself again that he was an experienced tracker. If anyone could find her, he would.

Matthew had wanted to come along, or go to town for help. Sully understood his anger and frustration at being helpless, but he needed him to stay with the younger children. Besides, he would never get into town with all the snow.

The homestead was completely isolated. If -- *when* he found her, how would he get her home? Would Colleen know what to do -- how to treat her injuries? He knew she must be hurt -- as much as he did not want to think about it, he had to expect the worst. How long had she been out in the blizzard? All night? Would she be unconscious? Frozen? Would there be blood, like in his nightmare? He'd have to take her back on his horse, there was no other way. But how long would it take? It seemed he had been searching for hours and hours...but maybe it had only been one or two.

Sully knew vaguely where the sick child's home was, and had started from that area. But finding neither traces of Mike or of the house, he continued combing the woods, searching the trails, working back and forth. He alternated between riding and walking to give the horse a rest. The wind had been so strong that the snow was piled waist deep in some places but only a few inches in others. She could be buried in a snow drift, he thought, and he'd never know it...

Where was Wolf? Sully peered through the trees, angry at himself for getting distracted. He hadn't even been paying attention to the ground and could have missed some vital clue...There Wolf was, up ahead. Was he limping? Sully worried that the snow and ice would cut the pads of his feet. He had been thinking for some time that they might have to turn back. If Wolf was hurt, neither of them had eaten since last night, and his hands and feet were starting to go numb... Just a little longer. What if she was just over the next hill or beyond the next bush? He moved forward again, scanning the ground carefully.

Something caught his eye. He stooped lower and discovered a clump of dark blue fuzz stuck to a branch. From Mike's cloak, it had to be. He would know that color anywhere -- he loved how it brought out the green and brown of her eyes. She had come this way. Just then he heard Wolf's frenzied barking. He had found something. Sully followed the sound, heading towards what looked like a ravine or dry creek bed. He caught sight of Wolf's tail disappearing over the edge and, steeling himself for what he might find, Sully looked down. Mike was lying in the snow. She lay on her right side, her hood and hair partially covering her face. Snow had drifted into a bank behind her. After this first look of relief and horror, Sully plunged down the slope, dozens of words flying through his head: frostbite, hypothermia, concussion, broken ribs, internal bleeding... He fell on his knees beside her and was again motionless as he desperately looked her over. His heart thumped painfully, and he was almost afraid to touch her. Her cloak was closed and covered her hands and feet -- that looked good for protection from frostbite. Her sprawled position was not natural -- Sully guessed correctly that she had tumbled down here during the blizzard -- but her body wasn't twisted. The only visible injury was on her cheek, the one turned towards the ground -- the skin was bruised, with a jagged cut running along her cheekbone, probably from the snow and ice. Slightly more hopeful, Sully studied her face...and his throat began to close in terror.

All color was gone from her face, except for a blue-purple tinge on her lips and eyelids. Her eyes were closed and very still, the lashes incredibly dark against that pale cheek. Her beautiful hair was tangled. Sully saw the sprig of holly from the Christmas party still decorating it -- but it was covered with a thin coat of ice. For a moment he was back in the bright, cheerful church. Mike stood before him, so very close, pink cheeks, eyes intense, very much alive. How could she be here like this now, lying on the cold ground, tinged with blue and covered with snow? Sully began praying to every spirit he knew. 'Please no, please not her, not now,' he thought over and over again as he fumbled to take off his glove. He felt desperately for a pulse at her white throat. A glittering object caught his eye -- the delicate gold necklace, cold as ice. He could feel nothing. Almost frantically, Sully put his face next to her mouth, waiting for her breath, but he was too numb with cold to feel anything. Again he touched her neck. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he made out a faint and slow heartbeat. With a cry of relief that came out as a sob, Sully gathered her up in his arms. He pressed his face into her snow -flecked hair, thanking every spirit he knew. After a moment he pulled away to look at her again. He was at a loss. What could he do? The woman he loved was alive, barely. They could not stay here, but could he, should he move her?

Helplessness had to be the one thing he hated most. "Michaela," he whispered. 'Wake up,' he begged her silently. 'You have to help me, I don't know what to do, please wake up!'

Wolf whined and Sully glanced up. The animal sat near them, tail wagging gently. He looked at Mike and whined again as if in sympathy. As Sully turned back to her, a single tear fell on her bruised cheek. Her eyelids fluttered. At first he thought he was imagining it, but then she took an audible breath.


Ever so slowly, her eyes opened and focused on his face.


Spoken as no more than a faint sigh, he wasn't sure he had really heard. But then she took another small gasp of air and seemed to struggle to keep her eyes open. Sully felt helpless no longer. He had to get her home. As gently as he could, he worked his arms around her and rose to his feet.

Careful not to trip on Mike's trailing skirts, Sully studied the slope of the ravine. He looked back at the woman in his arms, his throat feeling tight. Her eyes were again closed, her face so frighteningly pale. Had she fainted when he picked her up? Home, that was what he had to concentrate on. Getting her back where she would be warm and safe. Choosing what looked like the least treacherous path, Sully began picking his way up. At one point he slipped, falling to his knees. Mike stirred and moaned softly at the jolt. Cursing himself, knowing that she could have broken bones or any number of other injuries, Sully managed to regain his feet. When he reached the top he carefully laid Mike on the ground and retrieved from his horse the red and black blanket and a canteen. Again he gathered her in his arms, wrapping the blanket about her, then reached for the canteen. Unscrewing the cap, Sully hoped the hot tea was still warm. He held it to her lips saying gently, "Michaela...this will warm you up. Come on. I need you to drink this." He tipped a little onto her lips but she turned her head away weakly. "Michaela -- please..." Suddenly this became vitally important to Sully. She had to drink it, she had to try. She had to let him help her in the only way he could. The tension was getting to be too much. Sully looked again at the blue eyelids, the ice crystals in her hair, in his mind saw the blood on the snow. She was limp in his arms. "Michaela! Listen to me," he cried, "You've got to try, please you've got to. I've never known you to quit so you can't quit now! Do you hear me, fight! The children need you.. .I need you.....I love you," he whispered, his voice breaking.

Mike had felt herself slipping back into darkness. She could not open her eyes, did not want to. She simply wanted quiet and rest, no more snow, no more cold. She had seen Sully's face in a dream and thought finally, finally she was safe. But it was just a dream, she was really still fighting her way through the snow, lost forever in a blizzard. She was too tired. She did not want to fight anymore. Then faintly, she heard a voice. It seemed to call from a great distance, compelling her. Though it pulled her away from the safe warm darkness, she felt such power in it...such deep, intense emotion. She realized that arms were holding her, and with a great effort, opened her eyes.

And Sully found himself again looking into those green and brown eyes he loved so much. All he could do was hold her. It had been too close. He wanted to hold her for the rest of their lives.

"I love you too," she whispered against his jacket.

Renewed with hope by the sound of her voice, Sully offered her the tea and she drank as much as she could.

"Is is hot?" he asked.

"It's warm," she answered hoarsely. Already she seemed exhausted by the effort of drinking.

"Michaela, you have to tell me if you're all right. Is it safe to move you? Does anything hurt?" Sully was trying to keep her awake as well.

She didn't answer. Darkness lurked at the edges of her vision.


"I'm all right," she managed, blinking heavily.

"You have to try to stay awake, don't go to sleep." He was talking faster. "You -- you probably have hypothermia but you're going to be fine, just stay with me."

"Home," she said faintly. "Just home.."

"All right. All right, I'll get you there as fast as we can." He hesitated. The threat of her eyes closing prompted him to continue, attempting a smile. "But you have to promise me you'll still be here when we get back."

Mike's lips curved a little and Sully saw a spark of that old fire in her eyes. "I love you Sully...and I *promise*..." Then the faint flame dimmed and she fell back into unconsciousness.

The ride home was painfully slow. It had been hard enough getting both of them securely on his horse's back. Sully had to stand on a fallen tree trunk to lift Mike up, then still supporting her get on behind -- all while keeping the blanket wrapped around her shoulders and not jostling her too much. But he had managed. Now she sat safely in front of him, legs over the animal's left shoulder. His arms were around her (holding the reigns in front) and she leaned against him, head pillowed on his shoulder, face turned into his neck.

Sully dared not go any faster than a walk for Mike's sake; besides he had to make sure he didn't get lost. He had taken so many turns and switcbacks in looking for her that he could become easily disoriented. He kept trying to see her face but it was difficult because of the angle -- her head was under his chin. As far as he knew she was still unconscious -- but did her cheek against his neck feel slightly warmer? He felt sure that the blanket and contact with his body were helping, but at the same time he couldn't help thinking that in this position she could slip away and he'd never know it... No. "I *promise*" she had said. And, "I love you," not once but twice. Even in that weakened state his Mike had remained as determined and firey as ever. She was strong, healthy, beautiful. She would be all right. Just get her home safely. At long last they reached the homestead. The children must have been watching from the windows because as soon as he was within sight of the house, all three came out of the door at a run.

Matthew reached them first. "Oh my God," he said, shocked by her pallor. "Is she --"

"She's gonna be all right," reassured Sully. Then they were all talking at once.

"Where did you find her?"

"What happened to her cheek?"

"What's wrong with her?"

Sully suggested anxiously that they help him get her inside before he answered any questions. Matthew came around behind Mike to hold her while Sully dismounted, then they let her slide from the horse into Sully's waiting arms. Matthew then led the horse to the barn while the children followed Sully into the cabin, Wolf trailing after.

Inside, Sully laid her carefully on the bed, then sat down next to her, a little helplessly. Colleen came forward and took one of Mike's hands, examining it carefully.

"Frostbite?" Sully asked, dreading the thought of damage to those strong, gentle fingers.

Colleen nodded. "But only a little. They should be all right. Still...I think I should -- bathe them in some warm water." Sully nodded agreement, letting her take charge. He smiled inwardly. She reminded him of Mike. "And that bruise needs to be cleaned," Colleen said, gaining more confidence.

Matthew returned and she turned to him, asking, "Will you and Brian start heating some water for me? And get as many blankets as you can find." Then she reached for Mike's medical bag, withdrew a bottle and some cotton, and gently began cleaning the abrasions on her face. After a moment she looked up at Sully. "Is she hurt anywhere else?"

"I don't know," he replied. "But -- we need to get her out of these clothes. Her skirts are soaked and she's covered with ice. Then we can see if she's really all right." Colleen nodded again, and when they saw Matthew watching them, suggested that they heat up a hot water bottle and some bricks to put around her.

The two of them quickly removed her icy clothes, Sully letting Colleen undo the buttons of her dress, averting his eyes as much as he could. Why was he suddenly so aware of what he was doing? Sliding his hands under the skirts of a beautiful woman to remove her wet stockings could have been extremely provocative... But one glance at her frightening pallor was enough to remind him that this was a life and death situation. He could think only how painfully cold her skin felt.

Before they could cover her up they checked for further injury. Sully briefly told of his suspicion that she'd fallen in the ravine during the storm. Colleen checked her arms, legs and ribs for broken bones, as she had seen Mike do with Brian when he jumped from the tree. As Colleen touched her side, Mike gave a small moan and her eyebrows drew together. Colleen looked up at Sully with alarm, then drew back the edge of Mike's camisole. Sully was afraid to look. Colleen reported more bad bruises, but she didn't think anything was broken.

Next they piled blankets on top of her, adding the hot bricks Matthew and Brian handed them. As Sully tucked the last blanket under Mike's chin, Wolf jumped onto the bed, followed by Brian's puppy. "Hey," said Matthew to the dogs, "You're not allowed --"

"Wait," from Sully. "Look." Both animals were curling up next to Mike, one on either side. "A lot better than a hot water bottle," Sully smiled.

For the first time Sully truly understood why Mike hated waiting. He had remembered how she'd looked after Brian's operation -- the shadows under her eyes, how she'd put her face in her hands... how she had sat up with him, not eating, not sleeping. That was what Sully was experiencing now. He had hardly left Mike's bedside in the 24 hours after bringing her back. He sat on a low chair next to the bed, holding her small cool hand in his two warm large ones. For the hundreth time his eyes carefully searched her face, looking for any sign that she would wake soon. Still no tinge of pink colored her cheek (except for the bright painful bruise), nor had she stirred or made any sound in hours. His mind kept returning to the scene near the ravine -- her love and her promise.

Colleen's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Sully, are you sure you don't want any lunch?"

Slightly startled, he glanced towards the table where the children were clearing away their dishes.

He shook his head. "Maybe later." Colleen held his eyes a moment, then she looked past him to Mike, her eyebrows drawing together pensively. Brian looked at his sister and followed her gaze. Sully didn't need to see his expression to know how hard this was on the children. Ever since bundling Mike up in blankets and leaving her to rest, none of them had known what to do with themselves. They walked on eggshells, talked in whispers, cast worried glances at the bed when they thought no one else was looking. They were still snowed in. Christmas had been forgotten.

Sully hadn't started really worrying until this morning. It had been noon yesterday that he'd brought her home. Considering her snowy ordeal, he thought it natural that she would sleep straight through to the next morning. But he had sat up with her anyway, just in case she woke in the night. He had finally dozed off, dreaming of their evening under the stars, and had awakened expecting her to be smiling up at him. But she wasn't. They had waited until after breakfast before gently attempting to wake her, but to no avail. Sully knew that Mike hadn't eaten in nearly 48 hours, not since the Christmas party. It seemed like eons ago that he had held her in his arms and she had laughed as they danced. Again Sully found himself silently begging her to wake up. They didn't even know if she was really asleep, or if she was unconscious. Colleen had lifted her eyelids but wasn't sure how to tell the difference.

The afternoon dragged on. Finally the children went out to the barn for chores before supper. On impulse, Sully grasped Colleen's elbow as she was about to follow her brothers out the door.

"Colleen," Sully began, then looked at the floor. Then he turned to look again at Mike. Very quietly, his eyes not leaving her face, he asked, "Would you know if she was in a coma?"

Colleen's mouth open and closed a few times before she was able to speak. "Sully I don't think -- I mean she's gonna be fine! People don't go into comas just because..."

"Would you know?" He repeated. Helplessly, Colleen shook her head. Sully nodded slightly. "I couldn't help but wonder ...We don't even know if..." he trailed off.

Colleen was watching her ma's pale face. "I wish there was something we could do," she whispered.

"I know," said Sully, and patted her shoulder. "I know." Colleen blinked a few times, tried to smile at him, and went out the door.

Again Sully took Mike's hand in both his own. His eyes travelled over her face once more, then he lowered his head and rested it on their joined fingers.

Sully opened his eyes. Had he been asleep? Not for very long anyway, the children were still out. Suddenly he raised his head, looking from Mike's hand to her face. Had he felt her fingers move? He sat very quietly, studying her. The only movement was the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. No, there! Her fingers definitely moved, weakly squeezing his. He squeezed back, and seeing her eyelids flutter, whispered her name, bending closer.


"Michaela! I'm here. I'm right here."

She turned her head towards him and slowly opened her eyes. They focused on him, then shifted to glance around the cabin.

"The children--?" she rasped in sudden concern and alarm.

"They're fine -- out in the barn doing chores."

Her face smoothed. "It's good to be back," she whispered, lips curving.

Sully's eyes were filled with tears. He could only repeat her name and kiss her hand, her hair, her cheek. "You were asleep so long I...I thought I 'd never..."

"I made a promise, didn't I?" she smiled. He couldn't believe it. Here was his Mike recently back from the dead, and she was already teasing him. "I always keep my promises," she went on. "Especially for you, Sully," Her voice had changed imperceptibly, becoming lower and utterly sincere. Her eyes looked deep and liquid in the dim room. Still holding her hand, Sully gently touched her hair, caressed her cheek.

"I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too," she replied, and they gazed at each other as if to satisfy years of longing.

After a few long moments Sully said with mock severity, "You better listen to me the next time there's a blizzard."

"I will," she said obediantly. "As long as you promise not to spin me around any more dance floors until I'm dizzy."

"It's a deal."

Sully sat by the fire, fondly watching Mike. She sat on Brian's bed in the alcove, reading him a bedtime story. Her voice was as soft and warm as the lamp behind her, which turned her hair into a golden brown halo.

She was really all right, Sully reassured himself. After waking up yesterday evening she had improved quickly. The children had showered her in hugs and kisses, then insisted on serving her supper in bed. In fact, they had all pulled chairs around the bed to be as close to her as possible. As Sully watched her, he was sure that just listening to and being close to her family again had put color back in her cheeks. They were all the medicine she needed. She had let them keep her in bed this morning, supplied with water bottles, and patiently sat as Colleen put salve on her cuts and bruises. But by afternoon she was restless and eager to be up and about -- besides, she reminded them, they still had a Christmas celebration waiting for them. So Mike had gotten up -- again, letting the children give her robes and slippers and blankets -- and had helped Colleen with dinner, finished decorating the tree, and started them all singing carols. She had even pulled Sully out of a chair and danced with him around the room while the children sang. He had gotten pushed playfully away, however, when he whispered in her ear that he ought to pull her out of ravines more often.

Now all the songs had been sung, the meal eaten and presents opened. Except for one. Mike was tucking Brian in, smiling down at him. She pulled the curtain closed, then turned and found herself once again caught by Sully's intense gaze. He stood up to meet her as she walked forward. They met in front of the crackling fire. He took both of her now wonderfully warm hands in his and raised each to his lips. Then smiling, he said, "I thought I'd do a little holiday decorating of my own," with a nod of his head toward the mantlepiece. There Mike saw a sprig of mistletoe.

She looked back at him with a frown of disapproval. "Byron Sully," she scolded, trying to be serious, "You should be ashamed of yourself." But he saw the smile lurking around her mouth.

"Yes," he said. "I should," sliding his arms around her waist. Mike's hands moved from his shoulders to his neck as they melted into each other. Just before their lips met he whispered, "Merry Christmas."

Mike kept her eyes blissfuly shut a moment after the kiss ended. She opened them when Sully let go of her. He reached for his jacket lying on a chair, and took from under it a small leather-wrapped package.

"Sit down." Mike joined him in front of the fire, curious. Both sat cross-legged, knees nearly touching. Sully handed her the gift. Mike turned it in her hands wonderingly. "Open it," he urged.

"Oh Sully, I didn't get you anything."

"You didn't have to."

"But I wanted t--" He put a finger on her lips.

"You're all right," he said softly. "That's all that matters." Her eyelashes trembled as he smiled gently.

"Go on," Sully urged, motioning to the gift. Reverently, Mike unfolded the leather. Her mouth opened in wonder as she saw what was inside. She held up a small leather amulet, fringed at the bottom. One side was decorated with a beaded letter, a multi-colored M.

"It's beautiful," she breathed. "You made this, didn't you?"

He nodded. "Look inside."

Mike undid the drawstring and turned the pouch upside-down over her hand. Three stones fell out, one brown, one blue and one clear. She looked at Sully questioningly.

"Do you know what kind of stones they are?" he asked.

"I think so. Turquoise, Tiger eye ... and quartz?"

"That's right. To the Cheyenne turquoise symbolizes water -- replenishing, life-giving. The tiger eye is the soil, the earth --
enduring and eternal. The crystal is air and purity."

Mike fingered the stones in her palm. "What do they mean to you?" she asked softly.

A faint smile played across his face. Reaching out, he took the blue stone from her hand. "Friendship," he said, and dropped it back into the bag. As he picked the next one his fingers lingered near hers. "And love..." he said, dropping the clear one in. A pause, then, his eyes holding hers, "Forever," he murmured. He put the last stone back into the amulet and slipped it over her head, brushing her hair away from her neck. Michaela reached for his hand and held it. As he watched, a single tear slid down the fading bruise on her cheek. Ever so gently, he tilted her head up, and meeting her eyes, caught the tear with his fingertip. "What's wrong?" he asked tenderly.

Mike shook her head a little, trying to smile, and looked down again. "Nothing, it's just that..."


She met his eyes again, seeming to decide something. "Sully. I was so frightened out there..." She took a deep breath, and he waited, nodding with concerned sympathy.

"I'm a doctor," she went on, voice hardening. "I deal with death almost everyday. But...I don't know if I've ever knowingly come that close to it myself. It was just so unexpected...And I was so cold...I couldn't think straight, and that made it even worse..." She took another shaky breath. "Part of the reason I was so..enthusiastic about singing carols and dancing and making cookies..was because I was afraid...Afraid that I might not have been here. I had started wondering if I'd ever see you again... wondering if the children could have handled losing their mother a second time." Her voice broke, and he tried to comfort her, but she was determined to to keep going. "I need to tell you..." she whispered. "When I was wandering out there, lost...I thought about you. I thought about you to keep my mind off my fears, and the cold. You're what kept me going, Sully."

They looked at each other in the dancing firelight, her wide eyes mirroring the awe in his. He held her hand as if he'd never let go. Finally, he broke the silence. "Every day," he said, "I thank the spirits that we found each other."

Her mouth trembled, and she fingered the amulet around her neck. She glanced down at it. "I didn't realize that...that you felt this way..this deeply."

"Yes," he said. "I do."

"And I didn't realize until now," she finished, "...that I do, too."

Sully reached up, cupping her cheek in his hand. "I'll always be here for you, Michaela. Always." Tentatively, lovingly, she leaned forward and placed a delicate kiss on his cheek, then rested her head on his shoulder as he enveloped her in his arms.

The End