Previously published in: Sentry Duty 11 (Agent With Style, 2007).


JUST A HUNK OF METAL



K Hanna Korossy






Jim Ellison loved his job, and that included being undercover.

He moved from room to room with the easy grace of a man who knew he was in charge. Which he wasn't, of course, really. He was in Mauricio Ferrara's house and the drug kingpin's "guest," which meant his every move was being watched and the wrong one would get him shot. But the challenge was invigorating and Jim relished it. That edge was one of the reasons he'd become a cop. He'd been a self-assured, experienced hitman for the last two weeks, and in less than twenty-four hours it would all pay off and the bad guys would go to jail for a long, long time. Jim was almost sorry the job would be over.

And yet he also longed to be back in the loft again, regaled at meals with stories of crazy academic life, falling asleep to a familiar heartbeat nearby, senses effortlessly under control just from being in familiar territory and his Guide being close. It was a new feeling still, not wholly unpleasant, but not one Jim was used to, either. In just a few years' time, he'd developed a life outside work, and now he was ready to go home.

But for one more day, he still had a job to do.

The library was occupied, Mike Tooms' mashed face looking up from the book he was reading and breaking into a cheerful grin at the sight of Jim.

"Hey, Williams! Come to get a little education?"

It was always smart to use some variation of your own name when you were undercover, and Jim used his middle name whenever he had the option. He reacted faster to it, and sometimes that second or two could mean the difference between living, and dying slowly and painfully.

Jim gave the man a return grin that was partly genuine. Of all Ferrara's men, his director of operations had been the only one Jim had gotten to really know and like, as close to a friendship as you could get knowing you'd be arresting the other guy soon.

"I already got an education, Mike. Head of the class at Smith & Wesson University."

Tooms laughed. "Yeah, I've seen your grades. Wouldn't hurt to crack a book sometime, though, Jimbo -- you ever have a job that included library privileges like this?" He waved a hand around the massive room.

Jim glanced around the room with apparent casualness, taking in the hundreds of shelves of books. Amid the usual bound leather volumes of classics in all manner of languages were worn paperback novels and college textbooks and bound journals. This library wasn't just for show, and that was part of why Ferrara was so dangerous. And hard to take down. It had needed five months of set-up just to get Jim those two weeks inside the house.

But even after two weeks and the tentative trust he'd built, every question was still a test. Jim gave the man a lazy smile, acknowledging he realized as much but was willing to go along. "Jordan," he said succinctly.

Mike nodded, the grin still hovering on his lips. Francis Jordan, Jr., a noteworthy name on Jim's carefully assembled resume, was known in some circles for the enormous library that took up half his home. Another test passed, and its transparency was just part of the game they'd both agreed to play. That, at least, was one thing Jim wouldn't miss. It was tiring being on your guard for those little traps, 24/7. No, he really would be glad to be done with this soon.

Jim gave Tooms a short nod in return and left the man to his book, continuing his informal patrol of the house. It was a routine he'd established early so Ferrara and his people would get used to it, walking through the house every day in an informal security check, and they seemed to accept it as part of his occupation's nature.

It also allowed him access to certain rooms without suspicion, his senses finding and letting him avoid all the cameras and detectors. The results of those visits filled a bulging file folder tucked under a board he'd pried loose in his room. But another benefit of the prowling was it provided a quiet place to make a phone call.

Jim slipped into the bathroom at the end of the hall, the farthest from his room in the whole mansion, and locked the door behind him. A minute later, he had the grate on the heating vent unscrewed, and he reached inside for the small cell phone tucked out of sight on the right side. Quickly casting his hearing out beyond the door and into surrounding rooms and hearing nothing, Jim dialed.

"Banks." The captain sounded tired and tense, but then, they all were. Rigid muscles in Jim's back eased just from the sound of a familiar voice.

"Simon, it's me."

Jim heard the slight shift of his boss's voice, probably indistinguishable to normal ears, as Simon's attention sharpened. That, and Simon taking his cigar out. "Jim. How's it going?"

"Everything's in place. I get my assignment and the money tomorrow."

"That's good." The tension remained in Banks' voice. "Any ideas yet who it is?"

"Yeah, I do," Jim said shortly. The important senator was a bigger target than they'd expected, but this wasn't the place to talk about it. Jim switched gears, trying not to sound too hopeful. "Hey, Simon, is Sandburg there?" He'd tried not to think too often about his partner because it just worried him -- Blair had a tendency to get in trouble even with supervision, let alone without -- but no one had to know the sound of the kid's voice also grounded Jim like no other, reminding him of who he really was and fine-tuning his senses even long-distance. He could use the centering just then.

And... Jim missed him.

There was a pause on the line, and he automatically dialed up his hearing to catch if something was distracting his boss. Instead, the lub-dub of Simon's quickening pulse filled Jim's ears.

Something was wrong.

"Uh, Jim, Blair's not here right now. Said he had some work to do at the university..."

It was Thursday, and Sandburg had no classes. Not like he didn't go in to school on other days, but the tightness of Simon's voice and the hurried heartbeat told Jim different. His friend was lying to him. Jim's own heartbeat kicked up a notch.

"...tomorrow I'm sure he'll be--"

"What's going on, Simon?" Jim cut in, growling low. "Where is he?"

There was a heavy sigh. "I wasn't going to tell you this until tomorrow, but... Veronica Sarris escaped from Conover last night."

A stone dropped into the pit of his stomach; Jim could feel its drag. "Where's Sandburg?" he repeated flatly.

"He's all right, Jim -- I talked to him myself. But Sarris somehow got to him, and she says she won't release him to anybody but you."

Blair as hostage yet again, and again because of him. And Sarris was crazy, on top of everything. Sandburg wouldn't be safe a minute with her, let alone-- "When?" Jim demanded.

"We're not sure -- sometime overnight. Everyone's been out chasing leads -- we'll find him, Jim, don't worry, just--"

"And when were you going to tell me this? Sir." There was a coldness, a fury in him he hadn't felt in two weeks of living on a drug dealer's hospitality.

Another hesitation, and then he could almost hear Simon straighten, switching from defense to offense. "Tomorrow, Detective Ellison, when you'd finished your job undercover, the one that took almost a half-year to set up and that I didn't want to distract you from. Sandburg will be fine until then, you know that."

He didn't know any such thing, and neither did Simon, but the captain didn't want him messing up the job. No distractions, like the knowledge that his friend and partner was in danger and Jim was the only one who could save him.

He answered without thinking. "I'm moving on Ferrara," Jim announced.

"What? Now? Jim, the money has to change hands for us to get him on solicitation to murder, you know that. Be reasonable -- we're almost there. Stick to the plan and we'll get him tomorrow -- Sandburg can hang on for one day."

"I've got records and numbers going back the last two years, Simon -- we can get Ferrara on possession, trafficking, and conspiracy, and we do know who his target is now." He could make it work. It wasn't part of the job to put civilians in danger.

"That's not all you're there for, Detective." Simon's tone would have made any other of his men cringe in submission.

But Jim's palms were sweaty with a whole other kind of fear. "I'm not here to get Blair killed, either, Captain," he said shortly.

"Jim..." Simon's voice had softened. "If you do this, it could cost you your badge, and I'm not sure I'll be able to help you."

This was friend-to-friend, not captain-to-detective, and it momentarily knocked Jim off-guard. It really could cost him his job and he knew it. Three years ago, when that was all he'd had, the possibility would have terrified him. What was one life to doing something this important, anyway?

The answer was a slow epiphany, stealing over Jim like a brightening sunrise, dragging his world view into new focus. That hunk of metal was no longer the most precious thing in his life as it had been even during his marriage. His priorities had subtly shifted over those three years, other claims on his life slipping ahead of his job without his even noticing. And one of the most precious of those was in danger now.

And suddenly it was the first easy decision he'd faced in two weeks.

"I'm moving on Ferrara in ten minutes -- you might want to send me some backup." Jim flipped the phone shut on the start of Simon's sputter. Heads would roll over the aborted mission, his probably included. But not Sandburg's, not if he could help it.

That had to wait for the moment, however, and Jim shut it away like the good cop he was. He stood, impassive once more, stuck the phone into his pocket -- no point in hiding it now -- and left the bathroom to stride down the hall.

He had a lot to do in the next ten minutes.


It was amazing how much Simon could do in ten minutes, too, when motivated. Jim shook his head in disbelief at all the flashing lights that filled the semi-circular driveway in front of the Ferrara household. It looked like Banks had brought along half the department.

At least it wouldn't be in vain. Jim watched dispassionately from the front step as Ferrara scowled at him while being loaded into the back seat of a cruiser. Yet another enemy to add to the list.

"You do good work, Jimbo, just not the line of work I thought you were in."

He turned at the sarcastic voice, not too surprised to see Tooms, hands cuffed behind his back, being escorted out by a uniform. Jim met his eyes steadily. "We all have our secrets, Mike."

Tooms dipped his head. "I still got one or two up my sleeve."

Jim would have expected no less. If he held a grudge, Tooms would be a far more dangerous enemy than Ferrara. And what had Jim called what he had with Mike, friendship? Stupid -- he should have known better than that. His real friend was...

Jim gave Tooms a curt nod, then turned away to find Simon, quickly.

He'd only seen Banks at the initial arrival, when the captain had stormed the place just behind the SWAT team, belting out orders. His eyes had met Jim's briefly before they'd both gone to do what they had to. But now with the building secure and Ferrara and his men in custody, they needed to talk.

He found Simon in Ferrara's office, directing records seizure. The moment Banks saw him, he said a word to the officer standing next to him and then strode over to Jim at the door, taking his arm firmly to lead him back out into the hallway.

He spoke even before Jim could open his mouth. "I'm going to chew you out from here to Mexico, Ellison, and when I'm done, the DA and the commissioner all want a turn, too. When they're finished, you'll be lucky if you still have a future, let alone one with the department."

"Simon--"

The captain's voice fell. "But I know, first comes first. Sarris left you a number to call." He held out a slip of paper, wary resignation in his tone but worry in his eyes. "Go find him, and let me know where to send Rafe and Brown to back you up."

"I don't need--"

"That's not a request, Jim. For the moment, you're still one of my men and I don't want you facing this psycho woman alone. Got it?"

It was a request, Jim realized, because Simon knew full well Jim was no longer taking orders. But he was worried, too. A little contrition stirred in Jim. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Now go see if you can do this right," Simon said acerbically, shoving his cigar back into his mouth and chomping down on it.

Jim was already gone.


The number reached a recording, not Sarris directly, but Jim was sure she'd know when he called. The message was short and to the point: the roof of the Tenley building, come alone. Surprisingly unoriginal for the mind that had terrorized Cascade with her series of random bombings, but Jim was grateful. Original meant unpredictable, and he'd had surprises enough already.

He went directly there, not stopping at the loft to change out of the nice suit or to catch a sensory glimpse of how long it had been since Sandburg had been home. Jim had talked to him the afternoon before, and Simon had said Sarris had escaped in the evening, so the longest she could have had Blair was fourteen to sixteen hours. Long enough to be forever if she'd decided to play with him. But other than the sadistic streak of any bomber, Veronica hadn't shown a particular interest in physical pain, nor was it Blair she was really after. Jim only hoped that meant she'd kept Sandburg safe and intact, using him solely as a hostage. No, not just hoped. Prayed.

Almost losing him a few months before had shaken Jim badly. Seeing Sandburg lying lifeless by that fountain... well, there was no denying anymore the man had become a friend and even a partner. And Jim knew too well what it was like to lose a partner. He'd just never equated Blair with that role before.

So they were partners, as unlikely as that seemed. Jim could finally, mostly accept that. But this was another issue, unfamiliar territory. Your partner's safety was supposed to be part of the job, not at odds with it. Jim had never had to choose, not even with Jack's unorthodox methods, and he didn't like it. What was partnership outside the job? And where did that leave him?

And yet... there had been no contest. He hadn't even had to think about it. What was up with that?

Jim growled at the steering wheel. He hated soul-searching, complications, anything that wasn't black and white, and you didn't get much more technicolored than Sandburg. Yet here he was, worried about the man while barely giving a thought to Simon's not-so-idle threat. Another change in him he hadn't consciously made, and Jim didn't like it being made for him. Where would it end? Next thing he knew, he'd be living on a commune somewhere with Sandburg, weaving his own clothing and eating vegetarian mush.

Despite himself, Jim nearly smiled, his grip relaxing on the steering wheel. Okay, so some things never were going to change. That at least was reassuring.

Now if only Sandburg was safe...

Rafe and Brown were keeping their distance behind him, but if Jim concentrated, he could see them about a quarter-mile back. Even if somehow Sarris were keeping an eye on him on the way, it would look like he was alone. There would be no risking Sandburg's life any further than the delay had already done so. Jim planned to have a few words with Simon about that one, if he still had a job after this.

The Tenley building loomed up ahead. And try as Jim did to see what was happening on the roof, the angle of the building afforded him no view. So, going in blind it was. He'd taken greater risks for less gain before.

Jim double-parked across the street, then sprinted through the four lanes of traffic to the other side. At the door, a quick glance back revealed Rafe and Brown had nearly caught up with him. With any luck, he could wrap this up before they arrived on the scene. Jim went inside.

Veronica had been subtle; there was no sign from the bustling lobby that anyone knew a hostage was being held on the roof. Of course, it was possible she wasn't really there and was just taunting him or stringing him along to another meet. But Jim had a feeling about this one. As much as Sarris had played games with him during the bombings, when it came down to it, she'd met him face-to-face. He didn't think she would forego that satisfaction this time.

But it was only as the elevator passed the tenth floor on its way up and Jim's ears finally picked up the sound of that so-familiar heartbeat, that his fists unclenched and his frame loosened. Sandburg was here, and he was alive. Didn't even sound agitated, although hours of fear tended to make you sluggish instead of on edge. Blair would probably sleep through the whole weekend after this.

By the time the elevator reached the twelfth floor, Jim was alone in it, and he moved out cautiously, gun in hand. No one was in sight in either direction down the long hallway. He had to zero in on a sign at one end that indicated a stairway to the roof. Jim moved down the hallway with all the grace and stealth of a panther.

For all her imbalance, Sarris had made a smart choice: the Tenley was the highest building in the area, impossible for a sniper to sneak up on. She'd protected herself well. Not that it was going to save her. At the top of the stairway, Jim tested the knob on the door gently to see if it was unlocked -- it was -- then crouched down, making himself a smaller target as he eased the door open.

All the precaution was unnecessary. Veronica Sarris stood not twenty feet from the door, in plain sight and with gun drawn and aimed... at Sandburg, gagged and hands bound, standing right next to her, perilously near the edge of the roof.

"Detective Ellison. It's about time you showed up."

Wind swept the roof at that height, snatching words away, but Jim could still hear her clearly. Her voice was calm, assured, even as the buffeting breeze stirred her hair into waves. And rocked Sandburg slightly in her grip.

Jim lowered his gun fractionally, his eyes flicking from her to Sandburg and back again. He couldn't afford to not pay attention to her, but his quick glance had told him what he needed to know: his partner had an impressive bruise on his cheekbone and a black eye, but he looked lucid and otherwise healthy, tense and relieved at the same time. His heartbeat had gone up with Jim's arrival, but it was strong and steady. It thrummed in the back of Jim's thoughts like some kind of internal metronome that ordered his thoughts. Jim hadn't even realized how much he'd missed it those last two weeks until that moment.

Time to finish this. "Okay, Sarris, I'm here. Let him go."

Poor choice of words, maybe. Sarris shoved her hostage a little closer to the edge of the roof. Sandburg's eyes widened over the gag, his pulse pounding.

"Stop!" Jim was yelling before he made the decision to, taking a step closer before he caught himself. "What do you want?"

"I want my father back!"

Neither her eyes nor her voice betrayed irrationality, but her words... How were you supposed to negotiate with a demand like that? Tony Sarris was dead and buried in the jungles of Peru. Jim glanced over at Blair again, intending to send him a silent message to hang in there, but was the recipient of a frantic message instead. Blair's eyes were motioning downward, and as Jim followed their lead, he saw the younger man stick out the fingers of one hand. And, a second later, fold up his thumb. Four.

This was happening too fast -- Sandburg was getting ready to act but Jim wanted more time to talk to Veronica, maybe lull her into dropping her guard. Then again, as Jim's glare veered back to the woman, the rage and grief she exuded hit him almost like a physical force. Unconsciously picking up her scent, maybe, or some sort of tactile electrical tension in the air? Sandburg would've known. But it did tell Jim what his Guide already knew. There would be no talking this one out.

Three. Jim abruptly calmed, feeling without looking as Sandburg did the same, though he couldn't have said how. His senses sharpened into tight focus. "What do you want me to do?" he asked Veronica soothingly, seeing the minute movements of her body, hearing her breathing hitch, smelling her sense of triumph. Two.

She smiled then, and the look chilled Jim. He could see her madness now. "I want you to die," she said. And she shifted ever so slightly toward her gun hand, away from Blair.

One.

Sandburg's body bunched, ready to spring, and then he lunged, away from the roof's edge and toward Veronica, throwing her off-balance. She stumbled, letting him go, but was already re-aiming.

Jim had snapped up his gun in one smooth motion, finger tightening on the trigger at the same moment he heard her gun go off.

It felt like somebody chopped him in the throat, his windpipe closing, the blow knocking him down. But even as Jim's legs started to buckle, the clarity lingered and he saw Sarris fold like a rag doll, the gun flying out of her hands and pirouetting over the edge of the roof.

Enemy neutralized. Sandburg was safe.

Something hit the back of his head, hard. The tarred roof, only inches from his face, its faint odor of pitch making his nose twitch. Jim grimaced at it even as he flailed to find where he'd been hit.

He couldn't breathe. Or see -- everything was turning red. There was probably bleeding he needed to stop before it was too late. It should have worried him, but it felt removed, not touching him.

There was a thump, startlingly loud next to him. As he dragged up his eyes to see what caused it, Blair's crimson-tinged face wafted into view. He was shot, Jim tried to say, but nothing was coming out, or going in. He tried to grab his friend's hand, impress on him that something was wrong, but his arms didn't seem to be working right either, flopping like fish after they'd just been caught and tossed on the riverbank. Some of those were as long as his arm...

Something pressed against his throat, and suddenly Jim was drowning, liquid rushing in to replace what air was left. The detachment burst like a bubble at the assault of pain, and he tried to gasp, to shove off the weight, start first aid, stop the bleeding. But his body wasn't his own, and all he could see was Sandburg hovering over him, saying something. The gag hung around his neck like a loosened tie. He should be resting, not talking. Yelling even, as frantic as his expression was in the dimming light. Something was very wrong, bubbling up inside Jim like the fluid filling his throat and spilling over his chin.

Crisis training gave way to panic, and Jim tried one more time to lift his heavy hand to his throat, to yank away what was blocking it, and snagged instead another hand, one that held his tight.

It reassured him, for some reason, calming his frantic body for a moment. And then Blair's face faded completely and Jim slipped into the airless dark.


Hospitals seemed to turn down his senses, or maybe getting injured did. Either way, he was grateful. The antiseptic and other, nastier smells alone were bad enough without enhancement. Jim's nose wrinkled in wry appreciation.

His eyes opened with less reluctance than he'd have thought, giving him a view of white speckled tiles, his thoughts also clearing obligingly. No lingering effects of anesthesia then, which meant no surgery. Which meant he hadn't been hurt seriously, although his fragmented memory seemed to think otherwise. Well, he wasn't going to complain.

Jim experimentally turned his head. There were a few twinges but nothing too bad. He forgot about them, anyway, when he caught sight of who else was there in the room.

Blair was standing in front of the dark window, staring unseeingly at the glass. He was alive, on his feet, safe, Jim saw with no little relief and satisfaction. That mattered the most, and only then did Jim start taking in the rest. Like that Sandburg was dressed now in several layers, no longer just the thin sweater he'd worn on the rooftop, but his arms were crossed in front of him as if he were cold. His hair was pulled back, allowing Jim to get a good look at his blackened eye, probably a result of traveling from the purple and blue bruise on his cheek. That was the only color in his face.

He looked old, Jim realized. The kid he'd met three years had aged, more and more often reminding him of some of the youngsters in his platoon with baby faces and old eyes. Police work could do that to you, too.

Sometimes he missed that kid.

Jim opened his mouth to say hi, maybe bring a grin to the drawn face. He didn't like the twinge in his guts Sandburg's expression was giving him.

A rusted gate would have sounded better. Jim wouldn't have believed the creak that followed came from him if it hadn't felt like he'd just swallowed a rosebush, thorns and all.

Blair jumped, turning to stare at him as if momentarily unsure where he was. Then the hesitation was gone and he was striding to the side of the bed, immediately intercepting Jim's hand as he reached to see what the heck was wrong with his throat.

"No, Jim, you have to leave the bandage alone."

His glare could usually talk for him just as eloquently as his tongue, and he didn't spare it now.

Amazingly -- irritatingly -- Sandburg's mouth quirked upward. "I guess you can't be doing too bad if you're already giving me the Ellison Eye," he said dryly.

Jim's senses were coming back online, though, at least where Blair was concerned, and he could hear the rumbles of an ignored stomach, see the bloodshot lines of his partner's eyes, and smell the acrid scent of fear that still clung to him, whether from the little adventure with Sarris or waiting for Jim to wake up in the hospital. He could guess the rest. The glare faded into a mere huff Sandburg would know wasn't aimed at him, and a silent question.

"You were shot in the throat, remember? Well, maybe you don't remember -- the doc says you hit your head on the way down, too. The damage wasn't too bad -- the bullet sorta just scratched it -- but it's gonna be swollen for a few days so you can't talk. Uh, your throat, that is. Okay?"

One thing Jim had learned in three years was how to translate a Sandburgian monologue. Shot in the throat -- right. He thought he remembered that. And the feeling of drowning. Nice memory.

And Sandburg, panicked as he'd been so often in the early days but not much lately. Jim focused on the hand still restraining his own. Thin crusts of dried blood lined the fingernails.

He sagged back into the bed, suddenly feeling old and tired, too.

Sandburg let him go, adjusting the blanket that covered him, then sinking into a chair beside the bed. Jim followed his motions by sound, hearing Blair scrub his face with his hands, then utter a long sigh.

"You're gonna be fine, Jim -- the doctor said you'll just need some time for your throat to heal." There was a gentle tug on the blanket, as if someone were picking at it, and a long pause that made Jim uncomfortable. Followed unexpectedly by, "Did I ever mention why I hate those John Wayne movies you practically have memorized?"

Jim blinked, worried suddenly about the blow to the head Sandburg had obviously received.

Blair leaned forward, elbows on his knees and talking to the floor. "Did you ever really watch those movies, Jim? The guy wearing the white hat always walks into the bar without even thinking about it, like he's Mr. Indestructible or something. And of course he never gets shot because, hey, it's not in the script, right?"

Forget Sandburg -- Jim's head was starting to hurt. Was this about his getting shot?

"The white hats never get hit unless it's in the shoulder or somewhere else unimportant -- never mind all the nerves running through there and all the bones -- and they're always right, too, always know what to do."

Okay, now Jim was really confused. Where was all this dissection of westerns coming from? There was the technicolor stuff again, or maybe some shades of gray, given his partner's unhappy expression. But it wasn't like Jim could say anything, even if he'd had any idea what they were talking about in the first place. Too bad he didn't have a script.

Sandburg ran down, as if the oration had taken a lot out of him. His eyes finally came up to meet Jim's. "You almost died today, Jim."

Jim frowned. That was the first thing that made sense, and he liked it even less.

None of the hysterical kid was peering through the shadows in Blair's eyes now. "Dr. Penland says you came close to having your carotid artery severed, and you wouldn't've even made it to the hospital then." His voice was steady, but his hands, Jim could see now, were faintly trembling.

Held hostage for hours, then a face-off and Jim shot. No wonder Sandburg sounded and looked so bone-weary. There were limits to a man's endurance that had little to do with the physical.

There was a long pause. Then, "And Simon says you ditched a case because of me -- the DA's asking for your head. I told him, so what else is new, right?" A snort. "It took you six months to put this together, then when it's almost in the bag, you have to run out and save me, nearly getting yourself killed in the process, and they want to fire you. The irony could choke a horse, man." Blair shook his head helplessly.

This was more than fatigue. Jim could have sworn Sandburg had tears in his eyes, and this from the man who'd taken dying in stride. By all rights, Jim should have been the one upset, lying there with a hole in his throat and possibly unemployed. He wasn't even sure what was exactly bothering the kid. Yeah, Sandburg had been kidnapped, bound and knocked around, but Jim had the impression that wasn't the real issue. So, what, knowing Ferrara wouldn't be put out of business for good? Or that an ungrateful department might take away Ellison's badge, knowing how much that meant to him? Or that Jim had nearly died on that roof? Didn't Blair know the detective was struggling with some of those same questions himself? These new priorities also meant new distractions, concerns, even dependences, and this time those might have cost him not only a big case but also his job. And Sandburg was troubled?

Yes, he was, deeply; it didn't take a Sentinel to see it. And despite every argument and piece of logic Jim could muster, right now that mattered more to him than Ferrara or even his job. It didn't make sense, but there it was.

But he had no voice. Not to mention a severe case of sleepiness. Why did all the climactic TV resolutions after the hero got shot take place in the hospital, when by all rights the wounded paladin should have been about as coherent as a four-year-old and falling asleep in mid-word? It was a tough act to follow, even if he didn't have a torn-up throat and knew what to say. Wasn't Sandburg always teasing him about being just a dumb ex-Ranger? In many ways, he was right. As always, darn it.

Jim heaved a mental sigh, and reached out with somewhat less coordination than he usually prided himself for, giving Sandburg's shoulder, the only part he could reach, an awkward pat.

A soft sniff, then he got a wan smile in return. "Sorry. Guess it's true what they say, sleep is a good thing, huh?"

Jim tried another glare, but being horizontal seemed to have diminished its efficacy because Blair's smile only grew another fraction.

"Oh, hey -- you want me to read to you? Simon had Rafe bring some of my books by."

There was a rustle of pages, and Jim silently groaned. Maybe this was a good time to check out. At least Sandburg wasn't on the brink of falling apart anymore, and things would look better once they'd both gotten some sleep. And he'd be more up for making sense of what Sandburg was thinking. God knows that was hard enough in the best of times.

"Here. You'll like this -- it's abnormal psychology. It's an intro class I'm teaching next semester. Uh, okay, here's a good part. 'Antisocial personality disorder has been recognized under various names as a...'"

Jim slept.


He slept a lot in the next few days. You always got tired from being undercover, unable to completely lower your guard in enemy territory, day or night. And any injury took a lot out of you, let alone one that, by all accounts, you almost bled out from. But sleep was also easier than the frustration of not being able to communicate, or dealing with Simon's wrath or Blair's misgivings. Everyone Jim cared about was safe and the job, one way or another, was done, and so he let himself sleep.

But there was only so much sleep you could get, and as he rose back to consciousness to the distinctive scent of stale cigar smoke, Jim resigned himself to a visit he couldn't put off any longer.

The room was empty but for Simon Banks, no sign of Blair around. Probably left to give them some privacy, or maybe he'd finally taken the nurses' advice and gotten something to eat. Jim had been giving him pointed looks to that effect every time he'd woken to find Sandburg there, but for someone who could otherwise read his every twitch with irritating precision, Blair had been deliberately obtuse about the silent orders.

Simon wouldn't be so easy.

Jim stirred, stretching minutely in the bed, trying not to pull on the bandage on his throat, and blinked more sleepily at his boss than he felt.

"Good to see you awake, Jim," Simon said gruffly.

"Thanks," he whispered back. Four days after the shooting -- or at least he thought it was four days -- he was finally able to manage a bodiless whisper without searing his throat. He wasn't up to giving any speeches, but as long as the listener wasn't too far away, it made for at least minimal conversation.

Simon moved in automatically, stepping around to the side of Jim's bed instead of standing at its foot. Up close like that, he seemed to tower above Jim, and the thunderclouds in his face were ominous. But Jim also read relief there, and concern. His friend was still underneath the guise of "boss."

"I've spent the last four days talking to the DA, Hambry down in Vice, the commissioner, the mayor, and about twenty lawyers for Ferrara. And just about the only thing they're all in agreement is, they want your head on a platter tied with a red bow. Am I making myself clear, Ellison?"

He nodded meekly.

"The only reason they haven't gotten it yet is because Connor and Rafe and Brown and Joel and about a dozen other detectives in the department have been talking to the DA's office and the media and just about anybody who'll listen, about everything Sandburg's done for the department and what a great team you two are, and therefore why my best detective, who'd spent two weeks undercover and months before that preparing to go under, would throw it all away to go save him. The media likes it -- doesn't hurt that you got shot in the process, 'hero cop' and all. I'm not so sure the DA's office is buying it, but since we have enough to put Ferrara away for a while, they're gonna let it go, too."

That was actually more than he'd expected, and his expression must have communicated as much to Banks.

He pointed sternly at Jim. "This doesn't mean you get off scot-free -- the commissioner's still considering a reprimand for your file, although the commendation I'm putting you up for will pretty much cancel that out." He deliberately wasn't looking at Jim during that last and so didn't catch Ellison's grateful, knowing smile. "But you two are still going to be under the microscope for a while, Jim, and that means one little screw-up and you'll earn yourselves a whole truckload of trouble."

"Yes, sir." As if that were anything new. His pairing with Sandburg had had them under special scrutiny from the start, but their clearance record had always protected them. Ferrara wouldn't change that.

"Personally, I think you got lucky," Simon growled and patted his jacket for a cigar before realizing he couldn't have one in a hospital. It didn't help his scowl. "You realize you put both our jobs on the line there, Jim, and if this had gone south, you could have even been put up on charges for interfering with an investigation? I don't appreciate one of my men disobeying orders and taking things into their own hands like that. That was a great-granddaddy of a chance you took there."

Jim realized abruptly Simon hadn't told anyone he'd ordered Jim not to bring Ferrara down early. That sort of insubordination would have been punished even with a positive outcome. Simon really had taken a lot of the risk onto himself, jeopardizing his job along with Jim's. It was humbling -- and a little disturbing -- even in hindsight.

But it wouldn't have changed what Jim did.

"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered. He was sorry for all the trouble he'd caused, if not for what he'd done. That much he was clear on, at least.

Simon eyed him darkly, probably recognizing the difference. "Someone else could have gone after Sandburg, you know," he said more mildly.

"She would've killed him," Jim said with absolute certainty. And Simon knew as much or he would have called Sarris' number himself.

"We could have brought her down--"

"High roof, no vantage point. Outdoors, so no gas. Helicopter would've been too obvious. No other choices, sir."

Simon's face twisted. He hated giving up a point. "Jim," he said, quiet now, "you almost lost your job over this. I know it's not the first time, but it has been the closest. Next time, I might not be able to stop it. You sure this is worth it?"

He knew already; Simon had taken a few risks over the years for Sandburg, too. But Jim understood he had to ask, had to convince himself there really had been no other way. The captain didn't have the same liberty to act on his conscience as a lowly detective did.

Or on his feelings.

"Yes, sir." Even that whisper carried his conviction.

Simon would accept no less, but to that he merely gave a slow nod. And then, to Jim's surprise, he smiled. "You know, Jim, officially I'm supposed to chew you out for doing something this stupid and warn you never to try it again. But unofficially -- and this is strictly off the record -- I think you were right. I didn't really learn this until Daryl came along, but you're actually a better cop if you care about something more than the job than if that badge is the most important thing in your life. I'm glad you found that something."

Jim's eyebrows nearly made it to his hairline. Well, his former hairline. He might have expected this talk from Joel, but not Simon, the man who was always telling him the job came first. And who covered for him when Jim didn't act on it.

"Of course," Simon continued seriously, "if you tell anybody this, especially Sandburg, I will have to bust you down to crossing guard."

"Of course, sir."

"Good. I'm glad we understand each other."

"Understanding's good. What are we understanding?"

The third voice just coming through the doorway made Simon start, but Jim barely glanced that way, just stifled a smile. He'd been listening to Sandburg listening outside for the last minute. But it had been a good message for the younger man to overhear and so Jim hadn't given him away. Blair probably wouldn't realize, either. After three years, he still didn't always grasp you couldn't sneak stuff past a Sentinel.

"That neither of you are invincible, Sandburg," Simon growled without missing a beat.

"I've been trying to tell him that for years," Blair tossed back, shuffling in with hands stuffed into his pockets and a half-grin. His face looked better now, yellow and green-tinged instead of the deep blacks and blues, and not as pale.

"And what about you?" Simon gave him a pointed look, if not without genuine concern.

"Hey, it wasn't my fault Veronica decided to use me as bait! She was waiting behind some cars for me when I got home that night -- I couldn't've seen her coming."

"Not your fault, Chief," Jim whispered. They'd been through this once already, but he had a feeling it was mostly wounded pride for letting the woman overpower him that was talking. And maybe a little guilt that he'd been used to lure Jim into a trap.

Lure -- another word for distraction. There was that gnawing question again. Simon had all but said some distraction was good, probably figured it humanized Ellison or something, but Jim wasn't so sure. Even if he didn't see another viable option. It still rubbed at him: had he made a choice? Well, obviously. But on what grounds, and what would it mean?

Simon and Blair were both looking at him, and Jim realized he hadn't heard a word they'd said, even though some answer was obviously expected. Better take the graceful way out. "I'm tired," he sighed, and snuggled further into the bed.

Sandburg rolled his eyes. Simon had the maturity not to, but it was just as clear he saw through the dodge. "I have to be heading back to the station -- some of us still have work to do. Jim, you need anything?"

"Week's vacation?" Jim asked hopefully.

Simon snorted. "That's very funny. I'll be sure to tell Connor and Joel that -- they've been a lot busier with you being out. They can't wait until you're back on your feet again."

That was definitely an evil grin on his boss's face, and Jim played along with a long-suffering sigh. "It might be a while, sir," he said with a weak wave toward his throat.

"I'm sure with Sandburg looking after you, you'll be up and around in no time." Simon gave them both a satisfied look, and walked out the door.

Jim and Blair both rolled their eyes.

When no more seemed forthcoming from Sandburg, Jim spoke up -- softly. "So, what's the subject today, professor?" The ubiquitous backpack that even now hung from Sandburg's hand was never just for show.

But the look Blair was giving him in turn was serious, even searching. "Simon was talking about me, wasn't he? About it being worth it?"

This was so not a conversation he wanted to get into. He would have at least tried, for Sandburg's sake, because it was clearly eating at him, but it wasn't something Jim had exactly worked out himself, or was comfortable with. "'s not nice to eavesdrop," he said instead.

"You heard me out there." Blair dismissed the diversion without hesitation. And a few of Jim's assumptions. "He was talking about me being more important, wasn't he?"

Lord, Blair was going to make him say it. "Yeah, but--"

"Jim, nothing is more important than your life -- not me, not the job, not getting some big arrest. You -- you're one of a kind. If anything, Alex just made me more sure of that. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate your coming to the rescue, but--"

No one could spiral a conversation more quickly out of his control than the long-haired grad student standing beside his bed, and as always, Jim wasn't sure he liked that. "Whoa -- wait a minute. What are we talking about here?" Because he'd thought it was his job, but life and death and Alex -- the name still made him involuntarily bristle -- had somehow snuck into the picture.

Blair met his gaze steadily but not without some evident discomfort. "You riding to the rescue like that -- again -- and risking your life to save me."

Jim frowned, feeling dense. "Yeah, so?"

"So?" An unhappy laugh, and Blair ran a hand through his loose hair, all signs of his frustration Jim knew well. "So? Jim, this keeps happening -- me getting in trouble, you risking everything to come to the rescue. But one of these days it's gonna get you killed and I... I don't want to be responsible for that. It would be hard enough just losing-- It's not worth it, man."

His life. Jim gaped, finally getting what the kid was so worried about. It was about Jim endangering himself and possibly losing his life for Sandburg, as if that weren't what the job was all about already.

As if Sandburg weren't well worth it.

And here Jim had been worrying about losing his badge.

Yeah, okay, so the quality of his life was at least as important as the quantity of it. Jim could have died up on that roof and still have lived a full life with few regrets. But then, what was quality, really? A badge? A hunk of metal that would do him no favors, that wouldn't choose him over others?

Being thoroughly humbled was not a pleasant feeling, but he'd been getting a lot of practice at it.

Not enough at what to say in response, however. "Sandburg," Jim began helplessly, then stopped. "Blair..." An idea rose, probably born from interrogation tactics. "Is this about your dissertation?"

The utter shock in the other man's eyes made him flinch. If Jim didn't make his point quickly, worse damage would be done than when he'd read Blair's abstract.

"No, right? So just drop this garbage about me being one-of-a-kind, okay? You are, too -- everyone is. That's why I do my job, because life's important and worth the risk."

The stony, opaque look he got didn't tell Jim much except that he had to keep talking. So what if his voice was down to a breath?

"But that's just a piece of metal. This is more important." He grabbed Blair's arm before the kid could bolt on him, feeling a tremor go through it. Sandburg could interpret that as he wanted: people, life... friendship. "That's what Simon was saying, and I agree with him. If you haven't got that, the badge, or even your life, isn't worth very much."

"Or a dissertation," Blair muttered, sounding a little dazed.

Jim could relate. There was a reason he usually didn't dwell on stuff like this. All he said was, "Yeah," letting go of Blair's arm. The kid didn't bolt, just gave him a long, thoughtful look.

"It's not that simple, you know." The blue eyes had indeed aged, but there was a maturity in them that wasn't wholly bad. And, if he looked for it, a peace Jim didn't remember seeing in those early days, one that hadn't completely gone away even in Sandburg's doubts. Not that he would look for such a thing, of course.

"Maybe you should try thinking less." Good advice for both of them.

"Like you?"

A spark of humor now in the blue. Jim made a face. "Wiseguy."

Blair nodded, but not in answer to the tease. "I'll think about it," he said honestly, but not without acknowledged irony. Then, "Thanks, Jim."

Which was his cue to get out of touchy-feely territory. "Get us some Jags tickets for this Saturday's game and we'll call it even."

His partner fidgeted. "Actually, I have tickets already, but I was gonna take Joely--"

"Sandburg." His bark was also not at its best when he was voiceless, but he could still make it promise pain to come.

"Okay, okay. Geez -- Joely is so much better looking than you are."

He glared silently, giving his aching throat a rest.

Sandburg crossed his arms, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. It was a good sign. The grin creeping onto his face wasn't. "You know, I had no idea you could be so deep. I bet the psych department would love to have you as a guest lecturer."

The few inches he managed to lever himself up from the pillow were enough to make Blair straighten and beat a hasty retreat to the door.

"Or, uh, maybe I'll just let you sleep now. I'll come back when you're feeling less homicidal."

Jim scowled his fiercest.

Sandburg threw up both hands in mock surrender and fled the room, almost but not quite hiding a smile.

Which meant Jim didn't have to hide his any longer. He eased back flat, already sweating from the exertion, and grinned at the ceiling. Let the kid chew on that one for a while. It beat thinking about who risked what and why. For being so smart, Sandburg still didn't get a lot of the time how important he was to others. Like, uh, to Simon and the guys -- and Connor -- in the bullpen.

Now he was thinking too much. Jim heaved an aggrieved sigh and carefully rolled onto his side, pulling the blanket up over his shoulder.

And after fishing for a moment for the remote, turned the TV on.

The End


Back to The Loft