Written: 2000

Published: Sentry Duty 5 (2000), available from: www.agentwithstyle.com


WHEN IT MATTERS



K Hanna Korossy (Anna Kelly)






Jim Ellison didn't know anymore if he was a cop or a Sentinel first. His job-honed instincts and skills usually alerted him something was wrong just as his senses kicked in to do the same.

The bag wasn't obvious as he entered the loft, tucked carefully under the entrance table, its one protruding corner probably unnoticeable to normal eyes. But it caught Jim's attention almost at once, and with a frown, he scanned the area for other signs of things out of place. The spilled glass of milk, dripping in slow cadence onto the kitchen floor was one. The waterfall of paperwork and books that had moved into the loft the same time Sandburg, was also there but different, tossed around more haphazardly than usual and with uncharacteristic lack of attention. As if they'd been thrown around during a search, or in some great haste, Jim's experienced eye decided. All in all, something was certainly up, and it didn't seem like good news.

A year ago, Jim coming home from work to the sight of Blair's bag sitting packed by the door would have worried him far more deeply than he'd have cared to admit. His partner's duffel was bulging with contents, which for the travel-light anthropologist probably meant a longer trip. A trip that Blair hadn't even mentioned at breakfast, the last time Ellison had seen his partner. The idea flashed across Jim's mind that perhaps Sandburg had gotten another irresistible invitation for a research trip just as he had only a few months before, but Ellison dismissed that just as quickly. Blair had turned that trip down out of, as he said, friendship. And those words had gone a long way toward easing the Sentinel's abandonment-etched reflexes.

So why the impromptu departure now? Jim shut the front door behind him and quickly grabbed a few paper towels to mop up the milk, his eyes on the open french doors across the room as he tossed the wet towels into the sink. It didn't take sentinel skills to hear the agitated, tumbling words of his roommate inside.

"Uh, yes, that's right, one... No, I don't know the return date -- I need an open ticket."

Then Blair was leaving unexpectedly, Jim scowled. What was going on? His cop skills had served him about all that they could for the moment, and he turned to his senses.

Contrary to his Guide's grinning references to Jim's human lie detector skills, he didn't often turn his senses on other people. While finding his partner's steady heartbeat in the midst of a crisis could reassure him Sandburg was safe, the kid didn't seem to realize that the heart's rhythm wasn't the only audible sound the body made. Blood rushed through veins with a sound much like the waterpipes in the loft's wall, air whooshed in and out of lungs, and stomach and bowels growled an almost constant stream of unpleasant sounds as they worked. All in all, it was a nauseating experience.

But this was important. Jim opened his hearing, directing it to the small bedroom even as he moved quietly, cat-like, closer. There was the heartbeat, too fast for a person relatively at rest. In fact, it was nearly frantic and Jim narrowed his eyes, the implied threat to his Guide bringing in some protective instincts that were only partly his training. Sandburg's stomach was also churning in agitation and his breathing was elevated. There was no one else in the loft but the two of them, though, Jim was certain of that. So what was going on?

He was at the doorway now, and stopped by the frame, standing at ready for whatever was to come. Blair was oblivious, his back to the detective as he moved restlessly with the phone in one hand and a tightly coiled phone cord wrapped around the other.

"Yeah, okay, that's fine. Just put it on the card."

Jim extended his hearing for a second to catch the other half of the conversation, brow climbing at the amount Sandburg had just charged without hesitation. The kid didn't have that kind of money, let alone spent it indiscriminately.

"Good, I'll pick it up at the airport. Thanks a lot, man."

The phone clunked down and Blair stood still for a moment, hand remaining curled thoughtfully around the receiver. Then he jerked himself free of the cord and spun around, all motion again. And stopped dead at the sight of the waiting Sentinel.

"Jim! When'd you get in?"

"Long enough ago to hear you making travel arrangements." The momentary guilt on his partner's face did nothing to assuage Jim's worry, nor did the younger man's haggard appearance. "What's going on, Chief?" he asked impatiently.

Blair sank down on the edge of the bed, suddenly deflated. "I gotta leave for a while, Jim. I don't know how long it'll take -- guess it depends on how bad it is. I don't know... Maybe Simon can ride with you for a while? I'll have to talk to him--"

The uncharacteristically dampened body language and scattered thinking of his Guide scared Jim like nothing else up till then had. Whatever this was, it was worse than he'd thought. And as usual, his worry came out sounding far more angry than concerned. "What, Sandburg?!" he growled.

Blair blinked up at him in surprise, only then beginning to track. "Oh, yeah, sorry... It's Naomi. They just called." He began looking anywhere but Jim again. "Some park ranger out in New Hampshire. They just got word from a group she's with on the Appalachian trail that Naomi's sick -- they think it's appendicitis. But there's a bad storm in the area and they don't know the exact location of her group so it's gonna take a while to find her and get her to a hospital, and there's a good chance her appendix is gonna burst before then..." He swallowed. "I guess they're just preparing for the worst."

It was a relief of one kind, and new worry of a whole other, both for Naomi's sake and for Blair's. Jim swallowed, too, at a loss for what to say. "Chief, I'm sorry. If there's anything I can do to help..." He trailed off lamely.

"Thanks, Jim." Blair smiled at him, if fleetingly, appreciative even through his worry. It made Ellison wince. "It's okay, I just... gotta get out there, you know, just in case? I already talked to the U and I'm on emergency leave, and I have to take some time off from the station, too. But maybe Simon--"

"Don't worry about that, Sandburg." Jim straightened, chopping the air with one hand. "You've got enough on your plate for now. I can handle this sentinel thing for a while."

Blair looked at him sharply, ready to protest, then apparently thought better of it and just nodded. They'd both learned a lot over the last year. What would have once been taken as a threat to his being needed was now accepted as a gesture of friendship.

Jim hurried to change the subject. "When does the flight leave?"

"Uh, there aren't that many to planes to New Hampshire." Blair ran his hand agitatedly through his hair. "Next one doesn't leave until 9:25 tonight, and with all the connections, it'll be about 10:00 tomorrow before we get into Lebanon, New Hampshire."

Jim nodded. "We should leave for the airport at 7:00 then."

"I can take a cab."

"You could but you're not," Jim said, turning away from the bedroom. "I'm going to fix us some dinner while you finish packing."

His partner's soft, "Thanks, Jim," reached him even out in the kitchen, but its weary gratefulness only made Ellison grimace and wish he could do more.


There wasn't much in the loft to pull a dinner together from; Blair was to have gone shopping that day but apparently got sidetracked for obvious reasons. But a bag of noodles hiding in the back of the pantry and a jar of alfredo sauce made for a decent meal at least, and Jim set to fixing it, glad for the distraction.

This was so completely out of his element. Only a few weeks before, he and Blair had been out in the wild and the anthropologist had been hurt, first banged up and then shot. Despite his keeping things light at the time, Jim had been pretty worried about the kid. After getting them and Simon out of trouble, he'd stuck close to the younger man as Blair healed and got fully back on his feet. That was what Ellison excelled at, the physical mandates of keeping his city, his friends, his Guide safe. But the emotional needs...

The water was finally boiling, and Jim dumped the bag of noodles in, stirring vigorously. His hearing was turned up just high enough to listen to the cadence of his roommate's voice as Blair continued to make arrangements and notifications, making sure all was okay. Well, as okay as could be when your mom was seriously ill and you could do nothing but wait and worry. A situation Jim could relate to, only, his mother had left of her own choice, and never looked back.

He shook his head impatiently, the water sloshing over as he jerked the spoon too hard. Resurrecting those old demons wouldn't help anyone, and what was important now was what Blair needed. Jim wished anew there was something more he could do. No one should have to go through something like that alone.

The noodles were nearly done before the obvious solution presented itself. He was off for the next three days and his frugal, single lifestyle could certainly handle a last-minute trip. Jim gave it serious thought. Leaving at a moment's notice wouldn't please Simon, despite Jim's being off duty, but his boss would understand. Blair, however, who often seemed skittish at any discussion of family or any perceived impingements on his independence, Jim wasn't so sure about. Except that he had a feeling somehow that this was what his partner needed. Maybe Ellison wasn't good at the touchy-feely stuff and didn't know what to say, but at least he could be there and provide company, maybe even support if, God forbid, things turned out badly. Sandburg would need a friend then more than ever. Perhaps even if it was "Iron-jawed Ellison."

Jim flipped the noodles into the colander, then back into the bowl and added the sauce. He set the pot back on the stove onto the lowest setting before retrieving his cellphone and taking it upstairs. Good thing he'd recognized Pelle's voice before on the phone. Jim's travel agent friend was now the one Blair usually made his arrangements through, too, and Pelle would know what flight the kid was on. That call and one to Simon, and Jim could begin packing.


Dinner was a subdued affair. Ellison realized to his chagrin how much he'd grown used to having dinnertime conversation with someone again, talking over his day's frustrations and triumphs, rolling his eyes over some of Sandburg's tales of woe with students. Now, Blair sat across from him in grating silence, eating his pasta with the affect of someone who had no awareness of what he was doing, his mind on the other side of the continent. Where no doubt it was. Jim let him be, only startling the kid out of his thoughts when he took Blair's empty plate to stick it with his own in the sink.

"Ready to leave?" he asked, eyeing the younger man.

A silent nod. Blair rose from the table and retrieved his backpack from his bedroom, then got his bag out from under the little table by the door. A last glance around the loft made him suddenly flush with guilt. "Uh, I'm sorry about the mess. I'll just put it in a pile somewhere--" He took a step toward the living room.

Jim shook his head. "It can wait. I won't be here for it to get in my way."

Blair frowned at him, puzzled. "Where're you going?"

"New Hampshire," Jim said, picking up his own bag from under the loft stairs.

"But..." Sandburg's confusion was comical. Then his eyes warmed. "I really appreciate it, Jim, I mean it, but I'm okay and you can't just--"

"I've already talked to Simon, Chief. To paraphrase you, Naomi's my friend, too, and I'm going. So unless you want to stand here and argue until we miss our plane," he flexed the arm holding his bag, "I suggest we get moving."

Blair was weakening. "What about tickets? I only got one for me."

Jim had reached his side by now, and paused to tap the anthropologist on the forehead. "Pelle was my friend first, remember?" He moved past Blair without another word and opened the door, holding it expectantly for his partner.

Sandburg hesitated before finally giving in and coming. "You know, one of us is getting bossy in his old age, and it's not me," he grumbled under his breath as he went out the door ahead of Jim. But the detective could see the slumped shoulders lift a little and hear the slightest tremor to his voice. In a day when Blair's emotions had been ridden roughshod, it was the closest he could get to showing his appreciation without losing control. But the detective knew.

Smiling quietly, Ellison pulled the door shut and locked it behind him.


With their jobs and experience, both men could pretty much sleep anywhere, and even the series of connecting flights and in-between airport waits shouldn't have been much problem. But neither got much sleep that night. Blair alternated between staring moodily through dark windows and running on about inanities that Jim didn't even try to follow. For that matter, he doubted that Blair was, either. Jim would have nevertheless willingly stayed awake to keep Blair company and feign attention, if his partner's frame of mind hadn't have already made that a given. Somewhere along the way, the younger man's well-being had become necessary for Jim's own.

It wasn't until the middle of the night in Chicago, their longest layover, when the forced inactivity finally began to fray Blair. At least while they were going and kept busy making connections, the anthropologist's frenetic energy had distracted him. But now, with four hours to kill and a nearly deserted airport lounge to kill it in, Jim could almost see his roommate's frustration grow. Not content to sit still for more than a minute but too exhausted to be on his feet long, Blair was dangerously close to running himself into the ground and Ellison knew it.

He'd seen some of his fellow cops and soldiers bow under pressure like that, and they weren't facing loved ones in peril. No, not just loved ones, Jim amended silently, but the one member left of their immediate family. Sandburg had secretly impressed Jim nearly from day one with his ability to handle crises and stress, but this was beyond even his coping skills, especially when they had no information to go on and nothing useful to do. And so, Jim glanced at his watch, with... six and three-quarter hours left before they hit New Hampshire, he wondered if his partner would stay together for that long.

The object of his thoughts gave up on the notebook he'd pulled out of his backpack only a few minutes before, stuffing it back in with an impatient sigh. He looked up at Jim, face tight.

"Hey, how long has it been since we called last? Maybe they have--"

"Twenty-two minutes, Chief," Jim patiently answered, not needing to consult his watch again. "They know where we are -- they'll call if there's any news."

He'd said that before, too, and Blair's quick nod told him the kid remembered... but he needed to do something. Jim could sympathize. He wasn't too happy sitting and watching his partner unravel without being able to help him, either.

"I had appendicitis when I was a kid," Jim suddenly volunteered, surprising himself. The waiting was getting to him more than he'd realized.

The reaction both relieved and confounded him. Blair stilled in the seat next to him, all his attention suddenly on Ellison. "Yeah? You never told me that."

Jim shrugged. "It was a long time ago. I was out on a boy scout camping trip and started feeling lousy, but I didn't want to tell anyone and ruin the trip. I even lied to the scoutmaster when he asked me if I was feeling okay. I was determined to tough it out."

"So what happened?" Blair asked, as calm as Jim had seen him all evening.

"I made it through the night and even managed to hike back the next morning, though no one's sure how I did it," Jim answered reflectively. He hadn't thought of that story in a long time. "They figured out later that my appendix had already burst sometime during the night and I was running a high fever by then."

"But everything turned out okay," Blair prompted.

The sarcastic comment that immediately came to his lips wasn't appropriate, and Jim swallowed it. "Well, I ended up in the hospital for about a week, but yeah, I was okay. Scared my parents pretty good, though." That almost made him smile. There weren't too many good memories from his childhood, but his parents' deep concern for him then was one of them. "Mom didn't know whether to hug me or yell at me."

There was silence for a long minute. Then, almost hesitantly, Blair said, "You never talk about your mom."

Ellison's jaw went firm. No, he didn't talk about his mom, or about much of his past at all. What was the point of rehashing old ghosts and bad memories? Not even Simon knew about his mother, and Jim was just fine with that. He himself tried not to think about her or his childhood much, other than the inevitable reminders at Mother's Day and family holidays. All bittersweet. Any good memories from when he was very young were colored by what came after.

"Hey, man, look, I didn't mean to pry--" Blair was saying next to him, a hand held up in apology. Already one knee was beginning to bounce, his gaze sweeping the empty room in both awkward avoidance of Jim and the return of his own restlessness. The only thing that had settled him at all was Ellison talking.

Jim's mouth twisted. His own inhibitions seemed fairly petty compared to what Blair was facing. But still... "It's old news, Sandburg," he protested half-heartedly.

"You're saying that to an anthropologist?" Blair grinned ironically at him, then shook his head. "Don't worry about it, I was just, you know, making conversation. I think all this waiting's gettin' to me, you know?"

No kidding, Jim silently concurred. Well, sharing a little wouldn't hurt, would it? It would take Blair's mind off things, something he could badly use. And Jim was talking only to an interested friend in need of a distraction, not a researcher with notebook in hand.

Jim cleared his throat. "I don't remember that much about her, Sandburg. She left when I was only seven, and Steven was practically a baby."

"She left just like that?" The words had slipped out accidentally, Jim saw, Blair shutting his mouth almost at once as if regretting his boldness. Ellison was almost amused, and a little abashed. Was he that difficult?

Jim shook his head. "I don't know, maybe Dad saw it coming. To us kids, it was just like that. She was there when I left for school in the morning and gone by the time I got back. I never saw her again."

The effect his opening up was having on Sandburg was hard to miss and, frankly, perplexed Jim. The student was listening to every word Jim said as if they each held some great insight, his dark, tired eyes focused only on the detective. If this was distraction, his partner was far easier to distract than Jim would have believed. And it wasn't just interest in those wide eyes. It was sympathy.

Ellison tried to shrug it off, uncomfortable at the thought. This was all ancient history, didn't Sandburg understand that? "We still had Sally -- she was sometimes more of a mom than Mom had ever been. And Dad did his best--" Well, that wasn't quite true, was it? "I stopped thinking about it after a while." Two lies in a row.

"Did your... I mean, did you ever find out where she went?" Blair asked softly. "I mean, she's out there somewhere--"

Jim shook his head again. "Maybe she is. I don't know where she went, but I don't really care anymore. Dad said that she needed a little vacation and that was about all he ever said, but how do you explain to two little boys that their mom needed a vacation from them? She pretty much burned her bridges when she left."

"So you never saw her again," Blair breathed, almost more to himself than to Jim. "Man, that must've been tough."

Ellison just shifted uncomfortably. "Sandburg... I don't remember her all that much -- she wasn't around enough to make that big an impression. Like I said, Sally pretty much raised us, anyway, even when my mother was still there. She was just... busy with her own life."

Blair wisely kept silent, but he was watching Jim with rapt attention.

Jim almost didn't notice, his thoughts thirty years in the past. His expression gradually softened. "Actually, I do remember how she used to prepare for Christmas every year, made it into this huge family holiday. I don't know if she did it because it was the 'proper' thing to do, but Steven and I loved it -- lots of food, a huge tree, cool presents."

He didn't mention that after his mother left, money was about all they got for Christmas from their father, the only real gifts being Sally's. With Sandburg's damnably knowing look, Jim probably didn't have to say it. Then again, Blair had only one parent to begin with, and one who undoubtedly never had much money for gifts or decorations. At least she'd given Blair love. Under the circumstances, the thought was a sobering one.

Jim shook himself out of the momentary melancholy and glanced at his partner with a quick grin. "One year, it was a thirty-foot Lionel train for both of us. There were these little buildings and people," he shaped them in the air with his hands, "and a tunnel and a bridge -- the works. We set it up in the playroom and Steven and I pretty much lived in there for the next month."

"Yeah?" Blair was grinning back, sharing his remembered joy. "I didn't know you like trains. Maybe we should get one for the loft, you know, run it around the couch and under the stairs--"

"I think I've had enough of trains for a while," Jim said wryly, giving his partner a significant glance. After falling off of one, even the sound of a train whistle made him cringe.

"Oh. Yeah, I guess I can see that."

But that reminded Jim of another time. "We did go on a real train trip once, Mom and Steven and I, down to San Francisco..."

And that story, surprisingly, led to another, and another. There were some good memories among the bad ones after all, times Jim hadn't thought of for too long. And when it occasionally occurred to him that he was talking too long or saying too much, a glance at his calmed, almost content partner sitting by his side kept him going. Even if they both pretended not to notice when Blair sometimes rubbed at full, weary eyes.

They nearly missed the call for their flight, and as the two of them silently gathered their things, Jim watched his back-in-control Guide with some measure of satisfaction. And a curious lightening of his own heart.


Travel, staying up all night, and worry and stress were not a good combination. If Blair was half as exhausted as he looked, Jim speculated, it was a wonder the kid was still coherent. Probably only through conditioning from the long hours he kept as a student and teacher.

Still, the detective kept a hand lightly on his partner's back as they made their way from the final plane out to the front of Lebanon Airport. With the approach of their destination and hopefully some news, Blair had tensed up and gone silent again, his frenetic movements fueled once more by adrenalin. Fatigue had nevertheless taken its toll on his steadiness and clarity of thought. Jim didn't even make a crack when he had to stop and guide the tired anthropologist around the newspaper stand Blair nearly walked right into.

They found a cab soon enough, and Blair broke his tight-lipped quiet long enough to give the driver the name of the medical center. The ranger Sandburg had been in touch with had assured him that Naomi would be taken there directly, and Jim only hoped that she was already there. The waiting was driving both of them crazy, and for Blair that wasn't a long trip.

For all his own impatience and lack of what Blair teasingly called "the emotional range of a rock," this was one place where he had the advantage, Jim absently thought. He watched with concealed concern as his stiff partner perched on the edge of the seat, his backpack tightly clutched in his hand. There was no question that the anthropologist had a knack for dealing with people and had far more empathy than Jim would probably ever have. That wasn't Ellison's thing and he knew it. And the kid had an amazingly level head on his shoulders. When ninety-nine percent of the population would have run screaming from half the things he'd seen and been subjected to, Sandburg took it all in stride and kept coming back. That said a lot more for him in Jim's book than the detective would ever care to admit.

Blair shifted on the seat, giving Jim a wary glance, and the detective half-smiled at him. The younger man couldn't quite muster one in return, at least until Jim gripped his shoulder in as much reassurance as he could give. That seemed to at least break off some of the worst of the tension, and Blair thanked him with a look before turning to stare again out the window. Jim left his hand where it was.

Because despite all the student's strengths, this was what Jim had been trained for. Coolness under pressure, dealing with stress -- or at least setting it aside during crises -- using spare moments to relax. All the coping mechanisms that most people, civilians, found in others, Ellison had been trained to find in himself.

Until he had found a far better method. Who now lived with him and was his partner.

Not that Jim Ellison wouldn't have cheerfully broken the nose of anyone who dared to say as much.

Blair Sandburg had gotten no such training, of course, his whole life lived by the seat of his pants, Naomi its one constant. But he also had Jim now, not only another constant to depend on, but also an outlet and a 'Blessed Protector'. This was one thing the Sentinel could do in return for his Guide, outside of the natural duties of watching out for his partner. Which was why he was here in New Hampshire and why, come what may, he'd be there for Sandburg. As mortified as he would have been to admit it normally, when it mattered, Jim wouldn't have had it any other way.

The cab pulled up in front of the large, impressively named Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the imposing white complex nestled in a calming backdrop of rolling hills and trees. Well, calming to some. Jim was suddenly aware again of his partner's vitals, Blair's heartbeat spiking in scared anticipation. Ellison squeezed his shoulder once before letting go to pull out his wallet. He rather doubted the student had the money, anyway, let alone on him.

Blair was too busy to notice, already heading for the hospital main entrance. Jim was only two steps behind, his long stride quickly catching him up. They both stopped at the front desk.

"Is Naomi Sandburg here yet?" Blair asked in an almost normal-sounding voice. Only sentinel ears heard the definite wobble of the words.

The woman smiled at them pleasantly. "Let me see."

She turned to her keyboard, and Jim could actually feel the vibrations of tension from his Guide. He almost reached out again, except at the moment it would have been more distraction than help.

"Yes, it looks like she was admitted about a half-hour ago. You can go around that way," she pointed, "to the ER and they can probably tell you more."

Blair didn't need to be told twice. This time, it was Jim who had to hurry a little to keep up.

Sandburg had already asked at the ER desk by the time the detective reached his side again, and the Sentinel surreptitiously turned down his sense of smell against the sudden deluge of blood, medicine, and antiseptic odors. Perhaps he could have found Naomi by heartbeat if he tried, but he discarded the idea just as quickly. He had the right to make sure his Guide was safe, but with anyone else it seemed almost an invasion of privacy, especially when Blair himself was waiting so anxiously to hear about his mother. Besides, Jim was afraid he wouldn't find her heartbeat at all.

"Yes, here we go," the nurse said. She also smiled up at Blair, her dark eyes kind and her expression one of experienced reassurance. "Your mother was brought in a little while ago and taken almost directly up to surgery. I'm afraid that's all I know at the moment, but if you'd like to have a seat, the doctor will speak to you as soon as he can."

Frustration clouded his friend's face and he opened his mouth to argue for more details, but Jim knew that was all the nurse would be able to provide at the moment. He snagged Sandburg's arm, gently pulling him away from the counter. "We'll be right over there," he told the nurse, who nodded at him, then bent his head to say more softly to his partner, "We're just going to have to wait, Chief."

Blair remained tense for a moment, staring almost angrily at Jim, then he suddenly sagged and nodded in resignation. "I know, I know," he muttered, and allowed himself to be maneuvered over to the row of plush chairs Jim had indicated, sinking down in a seat. Jim sat next to him, still bending close.

"They managed to get her out and into good hands, Sandburg," he reminded his roommate quietly. "Don't sell Naomi short. If she got this far, she's not gonna give up now."

Blair was looking down at the floor, but Jim could see the corner of his mouth lift. "She always said there wasn't anything you couldn't do if you set your mind to it," he said hoarsely. He turned toward Jim, serious once more. "If her appendix burst while she was out there, how likely is it that..." His voice wound down.

Jim shook his head. "Impossible to say. Depends on how long it was, what kind of care she may have gotten, how bad the infection is. Look at me -- I didn't even get to the hospital until long after it burst, and they didn't have some of the medicines and treatments back then that they do now."

"Superman even when you were a kid," Blair snorted.

"Well, we're talking Naomi here." Jim nudged his partner, eyebrows raised. "She's not exactly the most fragile person I've met, either."

"Yeah..."

"We'll know soon, buddy," Jim said kindly. And that was about all he could say. Even stories about his past wouldn't do much at this point. He did curl his hand around Sandburg's shoulder once more, though, just to remind the kid that he wasn't waiting alone. It wasn't much but it was something, and putting action to his concern didn't even give him a second thought this time.

Blair saw the doctor coming first, emotional investment possibly even more powerful than sentinel senses. Jim rose with him, slightly behind but close to his partner in classic back-up position.

"Mr. Sandburg? They tell me you're Naomi's son?" the doctor said by way of introduction, his brown-mustached face breaking into a friendly grin. "I just came from taking her appendix out. Thank God we got to it when we did because that sucker was going to burst any second. As it was, there were no complications, and she's already being moved to a room. She asked for you once already when she came in -- would you like to see her when she's settled?"

"She's okay?" was Blair's brilliant response to that, and Jim grinned in huge relief and some amusement. "I mean, she's totally fine?"

"Well, she did just have surgery," the doctor said, "but she's already bouncing back faster than most."

Sandburg looked even more dazed than usual, not quite getting anything yet past the good news, and Jim stepped in then, still smiling. "Yes, he'd like to see her," he told the doctor, giving the younger man a little push as he did. "Wouldn't you, Chief?"

"Uh, yeah. Yeah! I mean," he turned to Jim, his face lit up in a grin, "she's all right! Oh, man, I don't believe it."

"Well, believe it," Jim said dryly. "Now, are you going with the nice doctor, or..."

"Oh, yeah. Sure." And with another delighted smile at Jim, he turned to follow the amused surgeon.

Jim remained behind, standing in the middle of the hallway and watching his partner hurry off, the usual bounce back in his step even despite his exhaustion. Jim needed to let the good news sink in, too, and allowed himself a private smile. As much as he'd kept his partner's optimism up, he'd been prepared for the worst. Hearing Naomi was not only alive, but would be just fine, had left him reeling nearly as much as Blair. Thank God. He would have done for Blair what he could have if it'd been bad news, reserve be damned, but Jim was grateful it hadn't come to that.

Rousing himself, Ellison straightened, glancing around the hallway for a place to stash his bags and the two Sandburg had left with him. After a moment, he decided to do so under the empty nurse's station, then, needing to see things through to the end, Jim found the life signs of his partner and followed them up a floor to Naomi's room.

The door was half-open, which was a good thing because Jim had no intention of eavesdropping, but what he saw put his mind at ease. Naomi was flat on her back and looked white and more frail than the detective was used to seeing her, but she held Blair's hand and smiled at him with much of her old vibrancy. They talked for several minutes until even from the hallway Jim could see how fatigued Naomi was. Blair must have also for he gently put her hand down and leaned over to kiss her cheek. He said something else that made her smile a little wider, then moved toward the door, turning once to wave good-bye.

In the hallway, he all but bumped into Ellison, seeming unsurprised that the detective was there. "She's okay, Jim. Said to say hi to you." And the worn shock of before was gone from his eyes, the lines of strain already eased. Replaced by utter exhaustion.

That Jim really could handle. "Told you, Darwin," he said amiably, taking the anthropologist's nearest arm and, with a last satisfied glance at the already asleep Naomi, directed Blair toward the elevator at the end of the hall. "Now, we're gonna find a motel nearby and put you to bed before you fall on your face. Naomi needs her rest, too, and you can come see her tomorrow."

Blair gave him a very long look, that one that always made Jim feel uncomfortably like he was more transparent than he wanted to be. Then, "Thanks, Jim," he said simply, voice a little thick with sleepiness. He smiled in earnest, also a little more knowingly than Jim was comfortable with, but what the heck. It was a good day. Jim grinned back, even more widely as Blair yawned. "Don' let me sleep in too long," the anthropologist muttered.

"Right."

Out the main entrance, to grab another taxi, and Sandburg was dozing against his shoulder before Jim even shut the door. This one time, Ellison let him, though it wouldn't do to set a precedent. But the kid certainly was dead on his feet and needed the rest after the last 24-hours.

Jim sat back against the seat carefully, feeling the head shift under all those curls until it found a comfortable spot. This touchy-feely stuff wouldn't do at all, as a rule. They each had their ways, and Ellison was content with his. But when Sandburg needed it, when it mattered...

Well, Jim grinned, maybe it wasn't so bad.

The End


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