The Courage to Trust

By Zanz

EMAIL: Zanz

"I'm gonna need you on this one, Chief."
Shoving the stack of papers he was grading to one side, Sandburg stood up. "You bet," he nodded as if there was no other option, which from his viewpoint was only the truth. Detective Jim Ellison was the Sentinel. Blair Sandburg was his Guide. Where the Sentinel went, the Guide went. End of discussion. "I'm with you, Jim." He caught the coat that was thrown to him and followed his partner out the door.

~~<>~~

The moon had not yet risen and in the darkness the old blue and white truck was bathed to a soft gray and silver. Ellison cut the lights on the truck before turning down the narrow muddy dirt track, his eyes automatically adjusting to the limited light, and in near silence let the vehicle roll to a stop on the back side of the construction site. They were in the newest high dollar tech center in Cascade known as 'Evergreen Summit' where all the latest, greatest and richest businesses were scheduled to be built. This was just the first building of many that were already slated to begin construction within the coming year. They were just to the north of the city, on a slight rise of land that offered spectacular views of both the mountains and the ocean, which partly explained the high cost. Ellison switched the engine off, allowing the silence of the night to permeate. Ancient evergreens were scattered throughout the site, the latest concession to the growing demand of environmentally conscious money men, at least on the outside. He wondered how many of these environmentally correct businessmen had toxic skeletons in their closets.
"Now we wait and see if the information you got pays off, right?"
"You got it, Chief." Ellison rolled the window down, scenting the coolness of the night air. The recent rain had cleansed the air of the old stale odors, leaving a clean scent to the slight breeze. A promise of something new. Maybe something a little better. It was deserted out here, no car lights visible as far as the normal eye could see. All he could hear close by was the noise the wind made through the uncut grass and the whispering sounds that could almost be understood as it whipped through the steel girders of the construction site. The Sentinel felt that if he just listened a little harder he would hear what the wind was saying. Ellison smiled at his own foolishness. But the relative quiet was soothing to his sentinel senses. It also made it easier for them to keep an eye out for any approaching vehicles. A lake of blackness was all that could be seen of the field between the truck and the two security lights that gave off small pools of polished brightness at the construction site.
"You don't really think they're gonna dump some guy's body in a concrete slab, do you?" Sandburg asked trying to see his friend through the darkness.
Ellison glanced at his partner. The younger man's face held that wide eyed look accentuated by dilated pupils. Ellison knew he could only see vague shapes in the darkness. "I hope it's just a body," he said grimly, scratching absently at the half-healed wound on the side of his head from a week old encounter with a bullet.
The anthropology student shot a look toward the dark outline of his roommate as he immediately picked up on the implied meaning of the detective's words. He shuddered. "Now that's an image I could have done without," he said dryly. "God, it sounds like something out of a 1940's 'B' movie."
"I wish I could think it was but it's not like we haven't found bodies in building foundations before," Ellison reminded him.
"The support post at the racetrack," Sandburg remembered. "This sort of thing happen often in your cases, Jim?"
"Not often, Chief," Ellison assured his partner, grinning in spite of the macabre subject matter. "Just when you're around."
Sandburg threw up one hand in a halting gesture. "Oh, no. You're not blaming this on me. You can call me a trouble magnet all you want but I'd like to point out that until I met you I'd never seen a dead body outside a funeral ceremony and, in spite of visiting more cultures and counter-cultures all over the world than I can count, I'd never been shot or kidnapped."
"So what, Chief?" Ellison asked still grinning, knowing his friend couldn't see him. "You trying to tell me you're ready to crawl off the roller coaster and back onto the merry-go-round?"
"Not even, Jim," Sandburg declared. "You're not getting rid of me that easily. I like this roller coaster."
Ellison shook his head. "Always knew you were a little weird, Sandburg."
"Me weird?" Sandburg protested indignantly. "That's sorta the pot calling the kettle black, don't you think? Besides, what would you do without me, huh? You ever think of that?"
A fine shiver ran through the other man. "Every day," he murmured too softly for his partner to hear. He watched as his friend pulled his left foot up to unlace his hiking boot and pull it off. "Sandburg, please!" Ellison complained, waving his hand to fend off the non-existent odor.
"Hey," the younger man protested, "my feet do not stink. Besides," he added with a grin, "you've got your window open. I've got something in my shoe that's rubbing against the side of my foot and I don't need a blister, man." Turning his shoe upside down he gave it a quick shake then ran his hand down inside to make sure the offending object was gone. He started to put the boot back on.
"Nothing came out, Chief."
"You sure? I didn't feel anything in there." He slid his foot back into the boot. "Ow, ow, ow," he muttered, pulling his foot free.
"Give me that," Ellison said in exasperation, taking the boot away from his partner. "I told you nothing fell out." He ran his hand down into the boot. "Which side?"
Eyes finally beginning to adjust a little to the limited light, Sandburg watched his friend's movements in surprise. "What're you doing?"
Ellison aimed a raised eyebrow at him even though it couldn't be seen clearly. It could be heard. "Trying to find what's bothering your foot, Sandburg. Which side hurts?"
"You've got your hand in my boot, Jim," Sandburg said flatly.
"Really, Einstein? I hadn't noticed," he said dryly. "Which side?" he demanded again.
"That's gross, man," the younger man said with a grimace.
Ellison sighed heavily with mock patience. "I've had my hands in worse, Sandburg. Now which side? Left or right?"
"Right. No, left!" the anthropology student corrected. "It hurts on the outside of my foot." He waited while his partner ran sensitive fingers along the inside of his boot. "Your snitch reliable?" he asked.
Ellison gave a noncommittal shrug that was felt more than seen in the darkness, hoping his partner would drop it. A half-embarrassed smile pulled at his lips when he felt the younger man shift on the seat beside him. He should have known better.
"So this didn't come through one of your regular sources?" Probing.
Ellison shook his head. "No." He should've been open about it. He should never've tried to hide it, gloss it over. Not from this man. This man knew him too well. Could always tell when he was evading the truth. Telling a half-truth. How? Ellison was the cop, not him. The one with the experience in dealing with less than honorable individuals. He was the Sentinel, who could hear the changes in a heart rate when a lie was being told, even before it was told. Smell the little tang in the sweat that usually accompanied a lie. His eyes narrowed as he absently surveyed the shadowed building site spread out before him but his mind was still on the problem sitting beside him. He was sure he didn't give off any of the normal signs that could be picked up on when he lied, no change in heart rate, no sheen of sweat, no shifting of the eyes. So how did his partner always know? Was there an odor he wasn't aware of? No, his own scents weren't something he was consciously aware of but he knew he'd notice if they changed. So what then?
Adjusting his eyesight almost automatically as he caught a glimpse of movement halfway through the site. He relaxed. The wind whipped an occasional piece of paper across the rough landscape as a black dog explored the site after the recent rain, trying to pick up any sign of encroachment from a challenger into his territory. The dog wore no collar or tags so he knew it wasn't a guard dog. More likely a stray from its too thin appearance and shaggy coat. The animal took time to hike his leg, placing his territorial mark on the trunk of one of the huge evergreens in front of the soon to be high-rise before heading off in the direction of the front gate.
Was it part of the Sentinel/Guide thing, he wondered, going back to the question of how Sandburg always caught him when he lied? Was there some kind of psychic connection he was unaware of? Shit, there was a scary thought. He grinned a little then sobered as he gave it serious consideration. He couldn't deny the tie between the two of them. Hell, it wouldn't do any good to deny it. Everybody saw it. It had been there almost from the beginning.
Ellison knew he wasn't the cold bastard some made him out to be. His mouth twitched in a suppressed grin. Well, not any more. He had been though. He knew that. Had to be in order to survive. But that persona had started slipping when he'd been invited to be a part of Simon Banks' Major Crime unit. It slipped a little more working with Jack Pendergast. It was like he'd finally found his niche. And with Blair Sandburg the hard ass reputation had slipped even further. Slipped? Hell, it was like a whole fucking landslide.
But the tough cop shell was a useful assumption he allowed to stand. The men and women he worked with on a daily basis knew him a little better and even they didn't push. But no one had ever moved in on him like the enigmatic man beside him. In a mind-bogglingly short period of time he'd infused himself into every facet of the cop's life, at the precinct, in the loft, even into his personal space. He gave a mental snort. Personal space? What personal space? It didn't exist between the two of them. Never had. And he was as bad as the younger man.
And the unusual thing? The really odd element here? He didn't mind it. He'd never minded it. He'd made a couple of the obligatory 'my territory, my rules' noises that seemed to be expected in the beginning but even that had been half-hearted. Two such incredibly different individuals, different in every way, social, economical, educational, hell just life experiences, every possible way - different. But still they fit together like two halves of the same whole.
And he liked it. More than liked it. He needed it. And even that revelation didn't bother him. It brought with it instead a feeling of safety. Of contentment.
He heard the in-drawn breath of his partner and, with a grin, answered the question before it could be asked; knowing it would disconcert the younger man that the information hadn't had to be pried out. "It was an anonymous tip," he said easily then almost spoiled it by laughing when the younger man choked a little as he swallowed his unasked question.
"An anonymous tip, huh?" his friend managed in a near normal voice as he finished an unconvincing cough.
"Yeah," he said, dropping his partner's boot into his lap. "There's nothing there," he said stretching casually. A little too casually he realized and had to laugh when the back of his friend's hand caught him in the stomach.
"You ass," Sandburg said with a fond grin.
"Hey!" Ellison protested rubbing his stomach. "What was that for?"
"What for? I'll give you what for," Sandburg threatened. He shook his head, his dark hair swaying with the movement. "Didn't want anybody knowing you acted on an anonymous tip, did you?"
His partner couldn't see his grin but Ellison knew he could hear it. "Knew you'd laugh."
"Yeah," Sandburg snorted. "Like that's ever bothered you in the past."
"Hey, I'm a sensitive guy," the Sentinel protested indignantly, then felt a flush when his partner's eyes searched for him in the darkness.
"That you are, my friend," Sandburg said softly. "About as sensitive as they come."
Darkness gave an illusion of safety in being unseen but to the Sentinel's enhanced sight it was seldom truly dark and he found himself wondering if his partner remembered that as he searched the younger man's face now for meaning behind the words. Lately there had been any number of words and phrases that could be read several different ways.
Even though it hadn't come up in years and for reasons he really couldn't explain, he'd been open about his past bisexuality when the grad student had moved in, knowing the issue made some people uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, Sandburg had not been one of those, going off on a tangent about the prevalence of bisexual and homosexual behavior in the pre-civilized cultures he'd encountered and Ellison had learned more about various sexual behaviors in tribes he'd never heard of than he'd ever really wanted to know. The conclusion he'd reached was that while the anthropology student was more than willing to accept any number of eccentricities and out and out weird-ass behaviors among his friends and acquaintances, Ellison got the impression that Sandburg himself, without coming right out and saying so, was a fairly straight guy. In every sense of the word. And that had been fine with Ellison. When he'd leaned in that direction, his preference had been for men built more like himself anyway. But for years he'd found himself more attracted to the female form and he and his roommate had actually double dated a couple of times. That had been short lived because he'd quickly learned he didn't have the enthusiasm or stamina of the younger man and he'd sat back and watched, a little awed, at the number and variety of women in and out of his friend's life. It was like Sandburg was the merry-go-round and someone was handing out free tickets. The line forms to your right. Ellison grinned, thinking that maybe a merry-go-round was too tame, a tilt-a-whirl might be a closer analogy or any one of those fast rides that seemed to spin in several different directions at once.
The seemingly non-ending flow of women had slowed almost to a stop after a while because of the demands of teaching and taking classes, homework, both his own and that of his students and the amount of time the grad student put in at the station. Ellison had tried to objectively study the anthropology student in the beginning, trying to determine what exactly it was the young man had that attracted the myriad of women and more than a couple of men, because even though he'd never seen the sentiment returned, he had seen more than one or two men hit on Sandburg.
It was his enthusiasm, Ellison finally decided, his roommate's ability to give his total attention and devotion to whatever woman he was seeing at the time. It wasn't a bad thing and more than once Ellison had found himself a little jealous of whoever was the latest recipient of Sandburg's attention. Not jealous in a sexual way, although he couldn't imagine what having that kind of single-minded passion aimed at you would be like, maybe jealous wasn't even the right word to use. It was more like envy. He'd never been the center of anyone's universe before, let alone someone as beautiful and intelligent and loving as Blair Sandburg.
His back straightened slowly and he felt his face grow stiff with the truth as knowledge crept from his subconscious into his conscious. Not sexual? Dear sweet God in heaven.
Ellison turned to stare blindly out his window as he watched a spear of light crest the horizon. It was the upper horn of a crescent moon, not giving off much light, which would be to their advantage. The pale sliver served to outline the steel girders of the building like a ghostly skeleton crouched on the cold black ground. Against the night sky the immense crane used to lift the steel I-beams looked like a bony finger straining skyward. In the near darkness the thin steel cable dangling down with the generator held aloft as protection against theft looked like a spider web, with prey at the end of the long slender thread wrapped in a tight cocoon waiting consumption at some later date. On a more realistic note, he wondered if the site supervisor was aware of the suspended generator. It was in violation of several state and federal safety regulations.
All of the practical stuff was processing on some level of his mind, and above it all he was aware of the sudden turmoil tossing in his mind. Then he became aware of his partner talking to him. He couldn't have answered. Couldn't even have said what the younger man was saying. He jumped when he felt Sandburg's hand on his arm.
"You okay, Jim?" There was concern in the words, the tone of his voice deeper than his normal chatter but not quite the level of Guide.
"Yeah," Ellison said, his voice steady. He didn't turn back to face his friend though. Not even in the dark. "Thought I heard something there for a second," he lied, then realized it wasn't a lie because he could hear something.
"What is it?" Sandburg asked softly.
Ellison narrowed his eyes, piggy-backing his sight with his hearing, trying to locate the elusive sound. "Don't know. I can't see anything and there's so much emptiness over there everything just echoes and I can't pinpoint where the sound is coming from." He shook his head. "It's always worse when it's wet. It's like sound bounces differently or something."
"What's it sound like?"
"Almost like an engine on slow idle but not really either," Ellison tried to explain.
"Maybe it's a generator," Sandburg suggested. "They've got to have security of some kind. They'd lose everything out here to thieves otherwise."
Ellison's head tilted for a second in full listening mode. "Don't know." He raised back up. "It sounds…wet. Sloshly."
"Sloshly?"
"Yeah, sloshly," he repeated.
"If you want to pinpoint it for sure I think we could try…"
"Never mind, Chief," Ellison said with a laugh. "Just drop it. Can't be too important or somebody would be around to keep an eye on it. Now what was it you'd asked before?"
Sandburg frowned a second then his voice lifted a little as he let it go. "I asked if you'd checked this place out," he said, nodding toward the construction site.
"Yeah, I ran it through. Everything looks on the up and up, from the finances behind it all to Ryder Industries, who're the brains behind this new tech center. It's their construction branch that's actually doing all the work on this building. It's to be the new home of Ryder Industries." He shifted, able then to turn back to his partner. "Tonight may not have anything to do with the people behind this site at all though. This place may have been chosen for convenience sake."
"Some place that couldn't be tied to whoever's behind it," Sandburg said. "So, what was it about this anonymous tip that you took seriously. I mean, there must be hundreds of anonymous calls in to the police department every day."
"At least," Ellison conceded. "This call came in the middle of the afternoon. The police operator said she asked specifically for me."
"She?" Sandburg picked up on the pronoun.
"Yeah."
"You recognize her voice?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"So what was it about her?"
Ellison considered. "She sounded real," he said slowly.
Sandburg nodded with a frown. "Was there anything going on in the background you picked up on?"
"Not that I remember," he said with a shrug.
Shaking his head, Sandburg rubbed his jaw. "You don't usually take an anonymous phone call that seriously without checking it out every way you can. There must have been something your subconscious registered." Folding his left leg up under his body, he half turned in the seat. "Close your eyes."
There was nothing commanding about Sandburg's voice, nothing hypnotic. Ellison trusted his partner and without questioning, he let his eyelids drop shut and waited for the next step, relaxing into the routine.
"Think about that call. The phone rang and you answered it. You hear her voice. Nervous. Maybe a little scared?" Sandburg's voice was soft, smooth.
Ellison nodded. "Frightened. I can hear her voice tremble. Breathless. She's talking fast like she's afraid she'll be overheard. Or maybe interrupted."
"Now I want you to really listen to her, her tone, the cadence of her words."
Sandburg's voice had dropped into the deeper, richer sound Ellison recognized as his Guide voice, slipping into his consciousness without disturbing his concentration.
"Think back," Sandburg continued. "Do you recognize her voice? Have you heard it before?" He watched as the Sentinel's brow furrowed in concentration as he compared this voice to others in his memory.
"No," Ellison said. "No, I don't think so."
Sandburg nodded. "Okay. Good. Now take her out. Pull her voice out of the memory. Concentrate. Tell me what you hear in the background now."
There were several seconds of silence as the Sentinel probed his memory. "Voices," he finally said. "Primarily women. Occasionally a man. Computer sounds. I can hear the clicking of keyboards and the sound of a printer. Shoes on a tile floor."
"Can you make out the words? Understand what they're saying?"
Elision's eyes tightened as he struggled to get the meanings of the sounds that only his subconscious had registered. "A man's voice. Angry. Swearing. 'Stupid piece of shit.' And a woman. Laughing. 'Take it easy, John. It's not the copier's fault your girlfriend dumped you.'" Elision's head tilted a bit and Sandburg silently placed his hand on his arm, his thumb rubbing gently. Grounding. "Several women talking about taking a shower." The Sentinel shook his head. "That can't be right." And he concentrated harder. "The baby's due in three weeks and they're trying to set a date for the shower." Another few minutes of silence and Ellison lifted his head. "That's it, Chief. Nothing there to identify the caller."
Sandburg shrugged a little. "Not the caller specifically but I think you hit it when you said she sounded real."
"Not following you here, Chief."
"Look. Where was she calling from?"
"Sounded like an office."
"Exactly. Was there anything you heard that would suggest this was a joke? A hoax?"
"Nothing."
"Right. It didn't sound rehearsed. There was no laughing in the background to indicate someone urging her on. Just normal, everyday people getting on with their lives. She sounded serious. You took her seriously."
"So why me?"
"What?" Sandburg asked blankly.
"Why'd she call me? I didn't recognize her voice so I'm assuming I don't know her. Why would she ask for me specifically?"
"Who knows?" Sandburg shrugged. "We'll probably never know that. It could be anything from some past publicity you've received where she remembered your name, to her knowing someone who knows you. Only way to be sure would be to identify her and ask. Unless you need her as a witness, it doesn't matter, does it?"
Ellison sighed. "No. I just don't like loose ends. Always makes me nervous." He rubbed his forehead. "So where's this all leading, Sandburg?"
"Leading?" The anthropology student stared blankly across the darkness of the truck. "You mean remembering the call? It's not leading anywhere. I was just trying to figure out what it was about this call over everything else that's routed across your desk that caught your interest."
"What? Thought it might be the senses picking something up? Couldn't just be a cop's hunch, could it?" he asked, half joking-half serious, but he wasn't surprised when his friend answered seriously. Sandburg reading him again.
"Yeah, it could. Probably eighty percent of it is." He shifted back against the door of the truck in an effort to get comfortable, stretching his leg out to rest his foot against his partner's leg. Unconsciously his foot moved slowly back and forth, rubbing gently. "I was just wondering how much of it was due to you integrating and using your senses without even being aware of it."
"But that's a good thing, right? I thought that's what we were shooting for," Ellison protested automatically, then silently laughed at himself for doing it. Sometimes he found himself playing into his partner's leads just so he could listen to his voice.
"No, goof-ball. It's not a good thing," Sandburg scolded, "it's a great thing. Of course that's what we're shooting for." He shifted a little to get the truck's armrest into a better spot on his back. "For a while when we first met it was like this war. You against the sentinel senses."
Ellison shrugged, a little uncomfortable about talking about that time. "When everything first came online during the Switchman case, I guess I did feel that way. Only it was more like the senses against me, rather than me against them. At least from my standpoint. It certainly felt like I was being bombarded from all sides," Ellison admitted.
Sandburg smiled toward the dark silhouette that was all he could see of his partner against the faint moonlight. "Well, it's good to see you so in control."
"Only because of you, Chief," the Sentinel said honestly, watching as his compliment brought a flush up the cheeks of the younger man.
Sandburg gave a snort of embarrassed laughter, shoving Ellison's leg with his socked foot. "It's getting a little deep in here, man."
Ellison grabbed the foot that rested against his leg and gave it a little shake. "I mean it. I don't say thank you enough. I try not to think where I'd be today if you hadn't shown up in the hospital that day." Idly he rubbed his hand along his friend's foot enjoying the feel of the warmth through the texture of the sock. "Here's your problem, Chief. You've got something inside your sock." His fingers pulled at a lump.
Sandburg slid his sock off and pulled out a ball of lint with a small sharp prickle of thorn inside it, then busied himself with putting his sock back on. "It wasn't because of me," he said. "You'd have made it, Jim. You'd have found a way."
The grim conviction in his friend's voice made Ellison look at him in surprise. Long curls shielded Sandburg's face as he wrestled his foot back into his boot. "You think so, Chief? Why?" He thought for several minutes that his question would go unanswered.
Finally in a low voice, Sandburg said, "Cause I don't want to even imagine my world without Jim Ellison in it." He shook his hair back as he lifted his head to stare out the windshield.
"Blair?"
Sandburg grinned a little ruefully without turning. "You've sorta got me at a disadvantage here, Jim. You can see me but I can't see you."
"Want me to close my eyes?" Ellison offered, surprised his voice didn't sound even a little breathless, because he was definitely having trouble breathing. His eyes did a quick once over of the building site, more for something to do than because he expected a change. He felt his throat tighten in the continued silence, wondering how far he was willing to push this. He swallowed. "I was pretty open when you moved in about… everything." The words sounded calm in spite of the pounding of his heart.
Sandburg nodded. "Yes, you were," he agreed.
Suddenly it was necessary that his hands hold something, anything, and the fingers of both hands crawled over the bottom curve of the steering wheel and held on. "None of it seemed to bother you," Ellison ventured. "Not even my sexual orientation."
The younger man took a deep breath like he wanted to say something then the air slowly leaked out from between his lips in a barely heard sigh. "No," he said with almost no sound. "No, it didn't bother me then."
Ellison turned his attention to the view from the front windshield that his partner seemed to find so intriguing as he struggled forward feeling like he was treading on tenuous ground, afraid any second he'd feel it fall out from under him. "It's been a long time to suddenly start having second thoughts now, Chief."
"I know."
Ellison felt his heart give a lurch at the soft words. Dear God. He swallowed hard. "So you're saying me being bisexual is bothering you suddenly."
"Nothing sudden about it," Sandburg told the windshield.
Ellison felt the blood drain from his face and was glad he was sitting down because he wasn't sure his legs would have supported him just then.
"Jim," Sandburg's voice shook, "are you… attracted to me?"
Ellison closed his eyes trying desperately to think. How did he answer that? If he was honest he ran the risk of scaring the younger man off but if he lied and said no, would his partner pick up on that lie? Sandburg would be hurt more by the lie than the truth.
From somewhere buried within his mind a small voice whispered, And the truth shall set you free. And he felt a sinking feeling as a harsher, more prominent one added, Or bury you. Before there was time for his continued silence to dig a hole he'd never find his way out of, he said a little too forcefully, "I've never acted on it, Chief." Followed by a grim, "I never would."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sandburg's head drop and the rapid, rhythmic thudding of his partner's heartbeat resonated in his head, drowning out everything else.
"I know you wouldn't, Jim," Sandburg's sigh held a breath of sadness.
Ellison's hands tightened on the hard plastic of the steering wheel until he heard it creaking in protest. "Chief…Blair, I swear to you I will never do anything to make you feel uncomfortable. I swear…"
"Jim."
The single soft word cut through his words more sharply than a shout. Ellison squeezed his eyes shut, wishing suddenly that he, no they, were anywhere but at this particular Rubicon. Their relationship, their very friendship was now forever changed and no amount of wishing would change it back to what it had been minutes before."
"Jim. What if…" Sandburg broke off.
The sudden tang of his partner's anxiety burned the Sentinel's nostrils and he felt his heartbeat stumble. "Ahh, Chief," he whispered miserably. "I'm sorry."
Sandburg cleared his throat. "What if I didn't feel uncomfortable?"
Seconds passed. Ellison had to remind himself to breathe as he struggled to find the ground that was no longer under him.
"Jim?"
Ellison started, jerking a little. "I know you're not gay, Chief." He grimaced at how flat it sounded.
"No, I'm not gay," Sandburg agreed and was aware of the sudden stiffness in the man beside him, felt more than seen. "Jim?"
"Am I reading this wrong, Chief?" Ellison asked, fear putting the stiffness in his voice as well.
"God, I hope not," Sandburg breathed.
"You're gonna have to help me out here, Sandburg," Ellison said finally looking back at his partner.
"I'm not gay," Sandburg said, "but I never said I wasn't bisexual."
"So you're saying you are?" Ellison asked, and he found himself holding his breath.
"Since before puberty," the younger man admitted and chuckled when he heard the sudden whosh of breath from his roommate. "Naomi and I talked, Jim. Always. And when I started looking in non-conventional directions she explained it to me. All of it." He grinned and shot a look toward the man beside him. "The way I was raised you really think a little thing like plumbing would get in the way?"
Ellison ran a hand over his forehead as if he could wipe the confusion away. "And you never mentioned this because...?" he asked his friend.
"It wasn't important in the beginning. You told me you were bisexual when I moved in because you didn't want me feeling uncomfortable. There was no reason for you to know my own sexual preference. I had no plan to act on it. I couldn't." Sandburg frowned as he tried to put his thoughts in order. "Look, I've studied cultures all over the world. Every imaginable aspect of people's lives. In every one of them, you learn pretty quickly as a sexual animal who's a viable partner and who isn't. That goes for any sexual orientation. If you were straight you'd never look at a married woman as a potential sexual partner. At least most men wouldn't," he corrected himself dryly. "You might look and appreciate the view but you'd never move on that attraction. Same thing with gay men. You might find a straight man attractive but you'd never move in on him. You just don't do that. You know that." He shrugged. "You said the same thing yourself just now."
Sandburg took a deep breath. "I had to look at you like that. I had to. It was hard enough keeping my mind on business, if you'd known I was bi, you might've had the same problems." His hands shifted, then lifted slightly before settling back on his thighs. "One of the first things you learn as an anthropologist observing a culture is that you don't go native. You just don't. If you do you lose all objectivity. You were my research subject, Jim. The epitome of everything I'd been searching for for years." He looked up then and in the darkness the intensity of his look took Ellison's breath away. "It just took me a while to realize it was more than just the sentinel project. That I had found more than just a research subject." He dropped his head, his hair concealing his eyes. "Even then I thought I could keep my personal fantasies out of my research."
"Your personal fantasies?" Ellison questioned, searching the lowered head trying to read his friend's face. "What's changed, Chief? I'm still your research subject." A sudden thought sent a shock wave through him. "Or is your dissertation finished?" he asked, managing to keep his voice even.
"No, it's coming along but it's not finished."
"So, what then?"
"Three things actually," Sandburg said. "I have enough information that if I had to I could write it just from the information I've already gathered." He snorted. "Hell, I could probably write half dozen of the damn things with what I've got, if I had to."
Ellison waited for him to continue, noting the slight flush that colored his friend's features. "You said there were three things?" he asked softly.
"Well, I'll tell you this," Sandburg said with a little laugh and lifted his head to shake his hair back. Still he didn't turn to face the man beside him. "I tried my best not to fall in love with you."
Ellison stared, unable to read his partner's profile, picking up the nervous tension in the tightness of the skin around Sandburg's eyes and mouth. "Do I hear a 'but' in there, Chief?" he asked softly, forcing the words though the airless vacuum that had taken up residence in his chest.
Without looking around, Sandburg asked, "Do you want there to be a 'but' in there, Jim?"
And this time Ellison had no problem hearing the breathlessness of his own voice as he answered, "Oh, yeah."
The younger man turned toward him then. The darkness opened Sandburg's pupils to almost completely eclipse the blue of his iris and seemed to give Ellison a direct window into the very soul of his partner. And he felt like all the air had been sucked out of the truck and his chest ached from the lack.
"I tried my best not to fall in love with you," Sandburg's voice was softer, more husky than Ellison could ever remember having heard it before. And it pushed every button labeled 'desire' he knew he had and a few he'd never even guessed at, causing the bottoms of his feet to burn and his toes to curl, seeking something to press against. And he wanted to crawl inside the man beside him. Or better yet, have Sandburg crawl inside him.
"But…" Ellison prompted in a voice he didn't recognize as his own.
Something flashed in his partner's eyes and they closed for a long second, a fine shudder trembling through his frame. When he opened his eyes the desire was gone, replaced by a rueful spark of mischief. "But," he continued in a normal voice, "it's gonna have to wait."
Ellison felt stunned, his mind scrambling to catch up. "Huh?" he managed, struggling to draw breath into his lungs.
"Heads up, my friend." Sandburg nodded at the darkness over Ellison's shoulder.
"What?" Ellison jerked his head around. He'd been so focused on the man in the seat beside him he'd neither seen nor heard the arrival. Still a quarter of a mile away a lone set of car headlights could be seen headed toward the construction site. "Fuck," he swore under his breath.
"Well, yeah, I had hoped…" Sandburg drawled then broke off at the snort of aborted laughter from his partner. "Is it them, you think?" he asked becoming more serious.
"Not yet. Not enough of them," Ellison said jerking his mind back to the job, he shifted on the truck seat, extending his leg and pulling his pant's leg down trying to find a little comfort, words of profanity he hadn't used since his army days running through his mind.
They watched in silence as the car pulled up to the front entrance. Sandburg saw the interior light come on and a indistinguishable figure emerge. Ellison saw more, right down to the heavy five o'clock shadow of the older driver that spoke of a need to shave twice a day and the pock marked face of his younger companion who moved with a nervous energy as he crawled out of the car to unlock and open the big double gates then get back inside after the car had pulled through. The car was briefly lit and it drove through the narrow band of light of the first security light then the driver headed toward the trailer sitting to one side that served as the site office, circling around the group of tall trees that were destined to be an island of green in the middle of an eventual roadway. It pulled to a stop directly beneath the second light.
"Can you hear what they're saying?"
The Sentinel nodded. "Yeah, but it's not much. Nothing about tonight." He tilted his head slightly and wasn't surprised to feel the brush of his Guide's hand on his arm as he concentrated. "I think one of them is new to this game. There's an excitement in his voice that you don't hear in the old players. The driver's been around a while, the other guy's younger. Early to mid twenties. The driver just called him Mike." He continued listening as the car parked and the two men climbed out. "The older guy's name is Frank. So now we have two names." Flashlights appeared and for several minutes they watched as the two men wandered about the construction site, several times crossing through the small bright area illuminated by the security light. A sudden arc of light lit the upper framework briefly and Ellison laughed. "Mike fell in the mud," he reported with a grin, then shook his head in mock severity, "I haven't heard language like that since Ranger training."
"I thought basic training was where you learned to swear like that," Sandburg said.
"Naw," Ellison denied with a grin. "Basic was Kindergarten. You earned an advanced degree in swearing in Ranger training."
"So, I figure you must have your Master's then."
"Doctorate," Ellison corrected, sending a quick amused look at his partner.
Sandburg snorted. "Now there's a dissertation I'd like to read," he laughed.
They watched as both men returned to their car. "Checking things out before the big boys arrive," Ellison said. He straightened, the tension leaving his body after both car doors had slammed shut. Sandburg's hand dropped away from his arm.
"How much of that do you do without thinking about it?"
Ellison looked around in confusion. "How much of what?"
Sandburg nodded toward the construction site. "The looking. The listening."
"I don't know anymore." Ellison shrugged.
"What kind of car are they driving?"
"Ford Taurus. Four door. Black," he responded immediately.
"You know the license number too, don't you?"
Ellison nodded.
"The VIN number?"
"I can't see it from this angle."
"But you could read it from here." This wasn't really a question.
"Hell, Chief, I could read the fine print on a contract from here, you know that." The Sentinel looked at his friend in incomprehension.
"Yeah, I know. It just never fails to completely blow me away." Sandburg grinned a little.
Ellison shook his head. "You know as much or more about my senses than I do. What I can and can't do." He frowned. "What brought all this on?"
"You were thanking me a bit ago and I just realized I've never thanked you."
"Thanked me?" Ellison asked in amazement. "For what?"
"For letting me be a part of this."
"For letting you be a part of it?" Ellison snorted. "It's not like I had any choice in the beginning, Sandburg," he said dryly. "I couldn't have done it without you. The tastes and the smells and sounds and all the rest were driving me crazy. You said you could help."
Sandburg nodded. "I know," he agreed. "And I did help you with control…"
"Still do," Ellison interrupted.
"Yeah, it's an ongoing thing," Sandburg agreed, "and I'm glad I can help. But it's more than that. You've invited me into your work, your life, your home." He grinned. "Okay, so I guess I invited myself into the loft but you let me stay. You let me stay involved in all of it even after you began controlling things on your own."
"You said it yourself, Chief. It's an ongoing thing. Besides," he added, "I wanted you here."
"Yeah, I know," Sandburg said softly. "And that's what I'm thanking you for."
"My pleasure," Ellison said honestly and then he grinned. "We're just becoming a regular mutual admiration society tonight, aren't we?"
Sandburg snorted. "Who needs cheerleaders?" he asked with a grin. After a minute he continued in the same light tone. "Ford Taurus, huh? What happened to the limos?"
"The hired help doesn't get limos. Those are reserved for the big bosses," Ellison said dryly.
"So if that makes them so easily recognizable why don't they drive regular cars?"
Ellison looked at him with one eyebrow raised. "You telling me you'd still drive the Volvo if you had that kind of money at your disposal?"
"Hey, don't go running the Volvo down," Sandburg protested.
"Yeah, I know, I know. It's a classic," Ellison repeated his partner's normal claim before the younger man could get the words out.
Sandburg looked in his direction in amazement. "Well, it's about time you finally admitted it," he said teasing, then added in a smug voice, "and they said you can't teach an old cop new tricks." Ellison interrupted with a snort of laughter. "And yeah, I probably would keep driving the Volvo. It'd be a good way to divert suspicion, you know? 'Course I'd cherry it out. Overhaul the engine. New interior. New paint job."
"A pair of those fuzzy red dice to hang from your rear view mirror,' Ellison continued in exactly the same tone as his partner.
Sandburg's head jerked up and a suspicious gleam entered his eyes. "I didn't know you liked those, man. Listen, all you had to do was say something, you know? They are yours, Jim! Think how good they'll look hanging from the rear view mirror." He gestured toward the mirror.
The police detective laughed. "Sandburg, don't you dare," he warned. Flipping the overhead light switch so it wouldn't come on when he opened the door, he glanced at his friend. "You ready, Chief?"
Sandburg grinned. "Always, Jim," he promised with an added warmth in his voice.
Ellison took a long moment to really look at the man beside him. "When this is over, remind me to pick this conversation up where we've left off, " he said softly.
The younger man's grin widened. "You're gonna have to be reminded?"
The Sentinel aimed a half-hearted cuff at his partner's head, which even in the dark the other man dodged. "Let's hit it."
Sandburg slid out of the seat and made his way around the truck to stand by his friend. "Lead the way. Just remember you've got a lesser mortal behind you who can't see in the dark." Absently he pushed his wind-blown hair back out of his face with one hand.
"If you're the 'lesser mortal' why is it that I feel like I'm always the one struggling to keep up?" Ellison asked, enjoying the self-conscious grin of his partner. "Sandburg…" he began seriously.
"I know, Jim. Stay behind you. Don't get in the line of fire. Stay out of danger. Don't take any unnecessary risks. Call it in when we need backup." He patted the pocket that held the cell phone as he looked up at his friend. There was no anger in his words, nor even much impatience.
"It's for your own safety, Chief."
"I know, Jim. I've heard it all before and I'm pretty good at doing most of it, okay?" He waited until the cop nodded. "But while you're out there chasing the bad guys and looking out for me, do me a favor, will you?"
Ellison turned to face his friend, hearing something in his tone that demanded his attention. "What's that?"
Moving into his partner's space, Sandburg gripped Ellison's arm just below his left elbow and squeezed it tightly. "I know you sometimes think of yourself as expendable but I don't see it that way, you know?" He turned his face into the wind slightly, his hair blowing away from his features as his finger's tightened even more. "So, look out for yourself as well. You got it?"
Ellison nodded. "I got it, Chief," he promised. He half turned to stare into the darkness.
Sandburg placed his hand in the small of the Sentinel's back. "Can you focus in on anything yet?"
Ellison's head tilted slightly as he listened. "Nothing yet. I think we need to move in though." He reached to brush a strand of loose hair back from his partner's face. "Ready?"
Keeping one hand on his friend's back, Sandburg followed the taller man though the darkness, the uneven ground demanding his full attention in spite of the care he knew the Sentinel was taking in picking the smoothest path across the field. It seemed to take forever before they stopped, well within the building's skeletal ribs, a large stack of lumber between them and the parked car containing the two men. The wind was not quite as strong within the building framework. They stood for several minutes, Sandburg with his hand on his partner's back to ground him as the Sentinel extended his senses to search the building site.
Ellison shifted a little uneasily. "Head back over there a bit," he said nodding in the direction where they'd left the truck parked. "Give Simon a call, give him a quick run down. I gave him a head's up before leaving work today." He shrugged a little. "Just that we were gonna be following a lead out here and to leave his cell phone on in case we needed anything. Tell him we don't know how many will be involved yet but that something is definitely going down tonight. See if he can send us some backup. Have him hold them out of sight somewhere until we notify him. While you're doing that, I'm gonna do a quick reconnaissance."
"Jim…"
Ellison nodded. "I know, Chief. You head out, I'll be back in a few minutes."
The detective watched his partner melt into the darkness, making his way carefully back the way they'd come. The beep, beep, beep of numbers being punched into Sandburg's cell phone reached the Sentinel and he heard his partner's voice, "Simon?"
And with that, the ex-covert ops Ranger faded into the night.

~~<>~~

Blair Sandburg made his way carefully back toward the construction site. "We may be in trouble, Jim," he said in a low voice as he picked his way though the darkness, fairly sure the Sentinel would hear him. "Simon says there's a multi-car accident on the interstate and it'll probably be close to an hour before he can get anybody out here. He'll try to send somebody if he can but we shouldn't count on it. We're on our own until then." His voice was filled with worry.
The sliver of crescent moon lit the night with just enough light to cast disturbing shadows across the ground, making it almost impossible for his eyes to truly pierce the darkness. Very little moved on the site but the darker shadows of the steel girders and the finger of blackness of the shadow cast by the boom arm of the crane seemed to writhe almost as if they were alive, the whispery wind calling to him. And God only knew what was hiding in the pitch-black shadows of the trees. Sandburg knew it was a trick of the darkness and his own imagination but the knowledge didn't prevent him from feeling uneasy. He tried to keep an eye open in case there were any bad guys who might be in his area. Not that he really thought there would be anyone anywhere near him. His partner would make sure of that but still he moved cautiously. Creeping back into the skeletal building, he dropped his voice to a whisper as he added, "I don't know what you're up to, man, but I wish you'd let me in on it. I can't just wait here while you're out there doing God knows what." He eased up to the stack of lumber, peeking out around the edge trying to get an idea of what was going on across the span of darkness. He tried to guess his partner's actions.
He pushed his hair back again, wishing he'd had the forethought to pull it back. Anxiously he shifted from foot to foot, his fingers restlessly toying with the edges of the boards under his hands. Five minutes passed without so much as a shadowy flicker to be seen of his partner. He closed his eyes finally, his fingers gripping the wood under his hands as he tried what he'd walked his Sentinel through so many times - listening, trying to extend his own limited hearing. There was the low rumble that his partner had heard earlier, faint to his own ears even now that he was actually so close. He could hear the wind as it passed though the big trees in the front of the building scenting the night air with the heavy perfume of the evergreens. There was a drip, drip, drip of water somewhere. And…music? He frowned. Yep. Definitely he could hear music. Classical, but he couldn't hear it clearly enough to identify the piece. It seemed to be competing with the wind for attention.
Something brushed his arm and he swallowed a yelp of startled surprise as he turned to see the grinning face of his partner. "Jesus, Jim!" he whispered fiercely pressing his fist against his chest. "Give a guy a heart attack, will you?"
"Sorry, Chief," Ellison apologized but totally blew the sincerity by asking with a grin, "You zone there, Sandburg?"
"No, I didn't zone," Sandburg said dryly. "I'll leave that to you. I was just listening." He hesitated. "I could almost swear I hear music."
Ellison nodded. "Pacobel's Canon in D. Not a bad rendition either." He nodded toward the parked car. "Seems Frank's taste runs along the classical lines." He looked down at his partner. "The car window's down a little but I'm still a little surprised you can hear it."
Sandburg shrugged. "I can't. Not really. Just a faint strand here and there when the wind dies down. Not enough to tell you what it is. Pacobel's Canon in D, huh?"
Ellison grinned at the question in his roommate's voice. "Yeah. Didn't think I'd recognize classical pieces, huh?"
Sandburg had the grace to look embarrassed but didn't pursue it.
"Simon said an hour?"
"Yeah."
"Damn. I don't think we're gonna have that long."
Sandburg lifted his chin, nodding in the direction Ellison had come from. "What'd you find out there?"
Ellison updated his partner. "They didn't even post sentries, Chief. I mean, I knew they hadn't because I couldn't hear anybody but those two in the car but I don't know, I guess I was expecting more concern or something from these guys. It's evident they're not expecting trouble but I don't think I've ever seen anyone quite so arrogant," he informed him. "It's like they don't think they can be caught." The cop's voice turned grim. "See that square frame over there?" He pointed to a wooden box looking affair built near the edge of the building site that looked to be about four-foot square.
"Yeah. What is it?"
The cop shrugged. "Not sure what its purpose is in the layout of the site, but from what I can tell, that's the place they'll be working tonight. It's the only form that's been prepared on the entire site. It's been dug into the ground about four feet deep and with what's showing above ground it's about six, maybe seven feet total. It's ready for pouring."
"So all they need is the concrete then."
"There's a cement truck parked at the back side of the construction trailer. Idling. The trailer's blocking the sound a little, which is why I couldn't identify it earlier, I guess. It had to have been delivered just before we arrived. Concrete can't be held in a truck long before it starts to set up"
Sandburg felt his stomach churn. "Damn." He looked up as he remembered something else. "Your sloshy sound."
"Yeah."
"So they're actually gonna do it."
"Seems like it."
"And we wait some more."
"Not really anything we can do right now." Ellison turned his eyes to watch, staring easily though the darkness of the construction site. His hand rested lightly against his partner's back. Grounding. He could feel the younger man's tension and wished there was something he could do to ease his mind.
Growing tired of staring into the dark, Sandburg shifted his gaze to the shadowy form of the man beside him. Even no more than he could see of him, it was better than staring at the dark half-built building. A few more minutes passed and the grad student became aware of an almost noise. It took him a couple of seconds to identify the virtually sub-vocal whispery hum coming from his partner. He grinned. Ellison was doing an almost silent sing along with the classical music that he knew the Sentinel could hear clearly coming from the car parked half a block away. With a tiny hitch of surprise in his breathing, Sandburg felt a warmth growing from his back where Ellison's hand rested. It wasn't just the physical presence of the hand but what the hand was doing. Feather light, so soft it had taken several minutes of the repetitive movements before it even registered, Ellison was drawing circles on his back. Eyelids dropping closed, Sandburg had to stop himself from leaning back into the touch, afraid if he drew attention to it, the moment would be spoiled and the hand would be withdrawn. He wanted the soft touch, the touch that was almost a caress. The movement at his back changed and it took him a minute to pick up the dip the long fingers were making at the top of the circle. One tiny part of his mind puzzled at the change in patterns. Surely that couldn't be what it felt like? Jim Ellison, a romantic?
"Chief?"
The whisper didn't disturb the mood. "Hmm?"
"Why now?"
That required thought and he opened his eyes. "What?" He found Ellison's head tilted toward him now but couldn't make out his partner's features in the darkness.
Then the Sentinel heard the sudden increase of his partner's heart rate and knew the younger man realized what he was talking about. "I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth," he began.
Sandburg grinned. "You calling me a horse here, Jim?"
"No, I'm not calling you a horse," he denied dryly. Then letting the laugh be heard in his voice, he added, "But if I did you'd be a stud, Chief."
Sandburg snorted. "Good save there, Jim." He felt the bigger man's chuckle. "You were saying?"
Ellison shifted slightly, his hand slowing its movement on his friend's back as he sobered. "What brought this out now? We've lived together for three years and I've never had a clue that you were bi, let alone interested in me."
Sandburg turned slightly within the circle of the arm that held him loosely. "The third thing," he breathed. Slowly, as if he was afraid his action might somehow cause the other man to pull away, Sandburg lifted his hand to touch the left side of his partner's head. His questing fingers lightly traced the healing scar half hidden by the short dark hair.
Ellison started in surprise, his hand going up to the wound on the side of his head he'd almost forgotten about receiving a week earlier when a bullet from a holdup had grazed his head. "This?" he said in surprise. "I don't understand. I've been hurt a lot worse than this before." He shrugged. "This was nothing," he said brushing it off.
Sandburg's hand didn't drop, instead it stayed where it was, making small, almost petting motions in the soft hair. "The wound itself wasn't much, no. And you have been hurt worse." His voice was grim. "More times than I like to think. But somehow this time I looked at that thin little band of blood and knew that if that bullet had been even half an inch closer it would have killed you." His fingers stroked the short hair behind Ellison's ear and he felt a thrill of joy when, ever so slightly, the Sentinel leaned into his touch. "I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life knowing I'd had the chance to say something and hadn't taken it. If one of us is killed, I want the other to have good memories. Not old regrets." The movement at his back stopped and he felt a flash of fear as he registered the sudden stillness and he was afraid he'd said too much.
"Damn, Chief," Ellison breathed in a barely heard sigh that sounded more like a prayer. Before he could say more the Sentinel's head jerked up. "Damn!" This was said more vehemently. "It just isn't our night, is it?" he said ruefully. "I think things are just about to get interesting."
Sandburg's head lifted enough to see the flickering lights approaching the construction site from the direction of the road.
"Remind me to finish this conversation when this is over," Sandburg said echoing his partner's earlier words.
"You gonna have to be reminded, Chief?" Ellison responded with a grin that broke off as headlights slashed through the darkness.
Sandburg looked up to find two cars bumping their way slowly down the drive toward the waiting car. The last vehicle was a limo. "The big boys."
"Well, you can bet it's not the state building inspectors," Ellison said dryly.
They watched as the two men in the waiting car climbed out, adjusting their coats in an unconscious gesture to look good for their boss. The driver side door was left open, the light spilling out into a shining pool of light on the wet ground. The cars pulled to a stop and Sandburg could hear muted voices as the driver of the limo climbed out and the two men who emerged from the second car met briefly with Frank and Mike. There was a moment of talk then Frank stepped forward and opened the door of the limo and the final two men emerged. The first was tall, in his late thirties or early forties; blond hair styled to one side. He wore a knee length black coat. The second man, shorter, wearing only a dark suit moved awkwardly. The limo driver moved up to take his place at the door and Frank moved back a little, away from the group of men. Sandburg felt Ellison stiffen. "What is it?"
"The last two men. You recognize the taller one?" the cop whispered. At the negative motion of his friend's head, Ellison continued. "That's Jason C Ryder, Jr. Known as JC to his friends."
Sandburg thought for a moment. "Jason Ryder as in Ryder Industries?" he asked, squinting to take in the figure who held himself slightly apart from the others.
Ellison nodded. "Yeah, seems rumors were right about him wanting to take over Daddy's business. Guess he didn't want to wait for the old man to die." Ellison watched in silence for several minutes. "I knew him."
"What?"
"I knew JC Ryder in high school." He shook his head. "Not well. He was from a rival school, played ball the same time I did. He was a good running back." His voice dropped a little lower. "I remember his father on the sidelines cheering him on."
Sandburg didn't know what to say to that. He finally asked, "Who's the little old guy standing beside him?" The wind caught the edge of Ryder's long coat, lifting it open for a moment.
"The one in handcuffs?"
"He's in handcuffs?" The Sentinel heard his Guide's heart rate increase. "Damn," Sandburg breathed. "The body."
"Yeah. That's Daddy's right hand man, Bobby Roberts. He's been with old man Ryder from the beginning. They've always run a pretty decent business, cutting a few corners here and there but nothing major. Everybody's always said Ryder made it because he had enough sense to stay the hell out of the way and let Bobby handle the business end of things. Nothing gets done in the company that Bobby doesn't okay. He was the up and coming whiz kid in his day." He moved sideways just a bit to get a better look.
"What happened to him?"
Ellison shrugged. "Not sure anything really happened to him. He just settled into a niche, you know?"
"Yeah," his partner whispered. "How do you know so much about this? This isn't a case you've been working on unless you've been holding out on me."
"Not one of mine, no," Ellison replied, his voice equally low. "But Simon asked me about Ryder Industries a couple of weeks back because my father had done business with them down through the years. He wanted to know why it stopped a couple of years ago." He shrugged. "I couldn't tell him much but it got my curiosity up and I looked into a few things. Dad said he stopped working with them when JC became more involved in the business. Didn't like him. Said he didn't trust him."
Ryder had joined Frank to one side. Sandburg saw the older guy nod a couple of times before he turned to give instructions to the other waiting men as Ryder moved back to his hostage. Two men spread out to the edges of the site, the third making a beeline for the construction trailer and disappeared behind it as the last man headed toward the waiting concrete form. Minutes passed then an engine revved a couple of times and the cement truck appeared and pulled forward. It took only minutes for the driver to maneuver the truck until it was backed up to the waiting form.
"I need you to stay here, Chief," Ellison said softly.
"What're you gonna be doing?" Sandburg demanded picking up on the change in the man beside him.
In the darkness, Ellison's teeth flashed in a wicked grin. "I'm gonna see if I can even the odds a little."
"Be careful," Sandburg said unnecessarily, his hand reaching to lightly touch his Sentinel's arm.
Ellison grinned again and reached to pat his partner's cheeks. "Don't worry, Chief. I won't be using the senses much. This is the fun stuff. Just like the good old days." His head jerked up to listen for a moment. "I need to get a move on. Somebody just said the form was ready. Looks like things are progressing a little quicker than expected. I'll be back as quickly as I can." He knew it took willpower on the part of his partner not to caution him to be careful again and his grin widened a little as he jogged off into the darkness listening to his friend muttering under his breath.
"He wants to even the odds. Even the odds for God's sake," Sandburg said in exasperation. "One man against five. Damn fool will probably do it, too. Him and his 'fun stuff.' You listening to me, Jim? You've got a damn strange idea about what's fun. You know that? I think I'm just glad I wasn't around during the 'good old days' as you call them. Especially if they were more 'fun' than tonight's shaping up to be."
"I'm glad you weren't either, Chief," Ellison murmured solemnly. His head lifted slightly as the younger man continued in the same low tones.
"You listen up, Jim Ellison. You keep your ass safe, you hear me?"
"Yeah, Chief. I hear you," the Sentinel whispered with a tender smile.
"You don't have a big read S painted on the chest of your blue spandex. Hell, you don't even have any blue spandex."
A grin stretched the cop's face with his partner's next words.
"Not that I wouldn't mind seeing that body in spandex," Sandburg said in a wishful tone.
All humour faded from the ex-Ranger as he rounded a corner and caught sight of his first prey. His partner's voice faded to the background as he directed all his senses toward the man walking the perimeter, his flashlight flicking carelessly through the darkness. His opinion of Ryder and his men declined even further.

~~<>~~

Sandburg kept his head down as much as he could while his partner was gone. All he needed was to be discovered hiding out. That would be a real quick end to the evening.
There was movement now; the stillness dispelled as the humans took possession of the site. Someone had moved the limo slightly, angling its nose toward the waiting concrete form. The headlights now sent twin beams of glaring light spearing the darkness, harshly illuminating the waiting grave. Sandburg felt his stomach heave. God forbid that they can't see the poor guy when they kill him, he thought in disgust.
Ryder and his prisoner had moved slightly, standing now by the front fender of the limo, the handcuffed man speaking quietly. It didn't look like he was pleading for his life; they might have been two building contractors talking over some problem of the construction site. Sandburg wished, not for the first time, that he had sentinel hearing.
It came to him then that if Roberts had indeed been with Jason Ryder from the beginning he'd probably known JC all his life, quite possibly in the role of an uncle. What would it be like to watch a baby grow up, through adolescence into his teens and then on into adulthood and then know the child you'd watched from birth was now responsible for your murder?
Had Ryder had a privileged childhood? Had he been a good child, doing all the normal things boys did? Little League? Maybe he'd been a Boy Scout? He'd played football in high school, Ellison said. Sandburg heard his partner's voice in his head, 'He was a good running back.' He had the build for it. So when had he changed? When had the need to prove himself in his father's world asserted itself? But this was more than just a son proving himself. This was a man out to take over another's life's work. Out to destroy his father.
"Damn," Sandburg breathed, taking a look around. There were only two of the other men visible. Frank, from the first car to arrive, was standing just behind the rear of the limo, barely seen around the branches of the big trees. He was keeping an experienced eye on everything. His younger partner was nowhere in sight. The other man was near the corner of the building skeleton, standing beside the wooden form that looked to be only about knee high. But Sandburg knew it was much deeper. Plenty deep enough to hold a body.
The door of the cement truck opened, illuminating the interior, and Sandburg amended his count of bad guys as Mike climbed down out of the cab and joined the other man at the form. There was a brief flare as cigarettes were lit, followed by a short burst of laughter that echoed across the site over the low dull sound of the cement truck. The truck driver made three men still visible. Had his partner managed to take out the other two or were they still wandering around out in the dark somewhere? He looked back over his shoulder nervously.
Sandburg shuddered then as he returned his eyes toward the little play of life and death that was going on in front of him. He did a little jiggle of anxiety, his fingers pulling at the rough wood with nervous energy. He could feel the adrenaline pumping. Fight or flight time. He recognized the emotions the adrenaline was triggering. Where the hell was his partner? He couldn't just wait here and watch them kill this guy. There was no part of his being that would allow him to stand idly by and just let that be done, even at risk to his own life. He looked around trying to find something in the darkness that he could use as a weapon. This was a construction site; there had to be something lying around he could use. The harshness of the nearby beams of lights from the headlights threw everything around into a sharp contrast of light and dark, long shadows distorting everything. Something on the ground just to his left caught his eye and he started forward, and almost fell when his foot came down on an object that rolled silently beneath his weight. Bending down he felt along the ground and his fingers closed around a piece of steel the thickness of his thumb. Cautiously he ran his hands down it, trying to tell its length. A grim smile curved his lips as he recognized the ridges in the steel rod he held. It was a piece of rebar, the steel reinforcement rods that were used when pouring concrete. It was just about four-foot long. He gave it a short practice swing, nodding in satisfaction, then he moved back over to the stack of lumber and took another look.
"Where are you, Jim? This is getting ready to go down," he whispered anxiously. "You know I'm not just gonna stand here and let them drown this guy in concrete."
A tiny whisper of unidentifiable sound was all the warning he had before the Sentinel said softly, "I know, Chief," from directly behind him. "Sorry," Ellison apologized, this time sincerely when he heard the startled pounding of his partner's heart.
"Shit, man!" The words come out in a gasp as Sandburg jumped, almost losing his grip on the steel bar he held.
"Sorry," Ellison repeated. Sudden loud metallic creaks and bangs sent the Sentinel's head down with a whispered grunt of pain.
"Dial it back, Jim," Sandburg breathed automatically, his hand caressing his friend's arm. "Dial it back."
Ellison nodded as his hearing automatically monitored his partner's heart rate, wishing there was something he could do to ease his anxiety. His head lifted as he watched the work going on at the form. Ryder's men were getting the cement truck ready for pouring, unhooking the supports that held the chute in place and moving it into position over the form.
"Where're the other guys?" Sandburg gestured toward Ryder and his group of men.
Ellison nodded in the general direction of the darkness to his right. He saw Sandburg stare intently up at him trying to read his expression and he smiled slightly as his hand soothed the younger man's arm absently. "Don't worry, Chief. I didn't kill them. I just bent them a little. I'm a cop now, remember?" The detective added in a low voice, "Besides, think of all the paperwork involved every time I kill somebody. You know how much I hate paperwork." He felt his partner start in surprise and his smile widened a bit when Sandburg gave a whispered chuckle.
Ellison was relieved to hear his friend's heartbeat slow to a near normal rate. Sandburg handled himself so well in the life and death situations he met as Jim Ellison's partner that sometimes the detective had to remind himself that the grad student was only an observer and not a cop himself and was in fact still relatively new to the whole cop world. It was only the young man's rapid heart rate and the tart smell of the adrenaline permeated sweat that gave him away now. Ellison'd found that if he could engage Sandburg's brain, the rest would fall into place. So he always tried to do what he could to try to take the younger man's mind off the grimness they encountered. Sometimes this was done by bullying his partner, sometimes by teasing, most often by letting him talk. The young man was a natural born teacher and he was just as happy lecturing to one person as he was in standing in front of a room full of people.
A shout echoed across the open lot and Sandburg saw the smaller form of Roberts stiffen. "Damn," he whispered, watching as Ryder motioned the older man forward and was surprised when Roberts did as he was instructed, walking slowly with his head up. "We gotta do something, Jim," Sandburg said, his fingers tightening on his friend's arm.
"Take it easy, Chief," the cop said watching the two men walking toward them. Roberts led the way, stepping up onto the curb to cross the island that encircled the small stand of trees. "We're not going to let Roberts die without a fight. Here take this." He pressed a length of rope into his partner's hands. "Don't pull on it," he cautioned urgently. "At least not yet." His head came up as he surveyed the scene before them. "I'm going to circle around to the other side of the cement truck, see if I can use it as cover to work my way closer. Give me a minute and a half to get into place then pull that rope as hard as you can. Then I want you outta here, Chief." Seeing the stubborn look on his friend's face, Ellison tightened his hold on the young man's shoulders, biting in just enough to try to make his point. "I mean it, Sandburg," he said. "I want you to head back toward the truck."
"I know you do, man." Sandburg winced at the tight grip. "But it's not going to happen, no matter how hard you squeeze, so get used to it." He looked back over his shoulder where Ryder and Roberts were walking. They were almost to the form. "And you'd better head out. He's running out of time."
"Damn it," Ellison muttered through clenched teeth, knowing it was too late to force the issue. "All right. But when you pull that rope, get the hell out of here. Ryder'll send his guys in to investigate the noise and I don't want them finding you." He raised his head, his eyes quickly assessing the situation. "Get your ass over toward the cement truck where I'm headed. That'll put you out of the way and a little closer to me."
Sandburg nodded, content with that suggestion. He had no intention of getting too far from his Sentinel.
"A minute and a half. Then pull."
"You got it."
"You'll have to pull hard, Chief," Ellison warned.
Sandburg nodded again and in a soft whisper the anthropologist began counting as he watched his partner disappear into the night in a hard run, the darkness giving the Sentinel an advantage the others didn't have. Calculating his friend's speed, Sandburg tried to mentally track his progress toward his destination as he counted. He'd only gotten as far as thirty-two when he heard a low shout from the direction of the parked cars.
"Mr. Ryder!"
Sandburg swung around, losing count for several seconds as he tried to figure out what was going on. Ryder turned back toward the limo where Frank still stood.
"What is it, Frank?" Ryder called impatiently.
"I don't like the feel of this, Mr. Ryder," Frank answered.
Ryder watched him for several seconds as if evaluating. "What don't you like, Frank?"
Frank shifted uncomfortably. "It just doesn't feel right," he said uncertainly.
And for the first time, Bobby Roberts spoke up. "You don't have to do this, Frank. Don't believe what JC's telling you. You've been with Jason a long time."
"Shut up, Bobby," Ryder said with no heat. "Frank's already made his decision. Haven't you, Frank? He knows there's no going back now." He turned to look back at his man. "It's okay, Frank. Tony and Lou are patrolling. Tommy and Mike are here with me and we've got everything under control. I planned this well and everything'll be fine. It'll be over in a few minutes." He pushed Roberts on toward his death, never looking back toward Frank again. Stopping at the edge of the pit, he stooped to pick up a concrete block then dropped it down into the hole.
Sandburg tried not to rush his pace as he resumed his count, watching as Mike and the man called Tommy lowered Bobby Roberts over the side of the form and into the hole. The smaller man was struggling now, kicking out, as if he'd finally realized that this was actually happening and he was going to die. Still, he didn't cry out.
"Mike, you and Tommy get down there and tie his legs to that block. I want the body centered in the middle of this support. I don't want anything going wrong with this pouring and I damn sure don't want any sign of the body being seen when they pull these forms away after the concrete sets up."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Ryder," the young man said eagerly as he jumped down into the pit with an excited grin. The second man followed him less enthusiastically. He looked to be a little older than Mike and maybe a little more experienced.
Ryder moved over to the end of the cement truck, adjusting a lever that set the drum of the truck spinning at a faster rotation, mixing the concrete it held. The chute hovered, adjusted to feed concrete into the waiting form.
Sandburg jerked his cell phone out of his pocket and hit redial knowing the noise from the truck would cover the sounds. "Now would be a good time, Simon," he said urgently as soon as the man on the other end answered. "I know what you said but I just wanted to let you know that now would be a really good time if you want to catch JC Ryder." He kept his eyes on the events playing out before him he cut into the tirade of the police captain. "I've gotta go, Simon," he said. He closed the phone, hitting the off button so no one could call in. He resumed counting, hoping he wasn't too far off.
"…seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine…" He was practically shaking with the adrenaline flowing through his body but he knew he had to give his partner time to get to the other side of the construction site. He leaned his makeshift weapon against the stack of lumber as he tightened his grip on the rope, bracing himself. Mike was climbing up out of the pit, grunting with the effort. Already at the top, Tommy gave him a hand up and they stood on either side of the concrete chute.
"…eighty-two, eighty-three…" Ryder leaned over the edge of the form watching the man waiting to die. He readjusted the lever and the truck drum slowed and came to a momentary stop, the lull in the motor making the sudden noise reduction seem even quieter. "I offered to let you join in with me, Bobby," Ryder half shouted. "My father's time is over. It's my turn now. You should have listened."
And for the first time, Sandburg heard fear in Bobby Roberts' voice as he snarled from the pit that the younger Ryder had scheduled to be his untold mausoleum. His voice was filled with hate, "You go to hell, JC! It doesn't matter how many people you kill, you'll never be the man your father is."
"…eighty-nine, ninety!" Sandburg gripped the rope and pulled. And nothing happened. His heart pounded frantically in his chest. "Shit," he grunted, not caring now that he spoke aloud. He wrapped the rope around his forearm and pulled again, jerking with all his might. It gave slightly with a little grinding sound but still nothing happened. Gritting his teeth, he leaned backward, putting his full body weight into it… And found himself sitting on his butt in the mud as the resistance gave and the loud resounding crash of falling debris shattered the relative quiet of the night. "Okay, Jim. You've got your distraction," he mumbled scrambling to his feet, trying to see what was going on after the noisy commotion.
"Tony! Lou!" Ryder shouted. "What the hell are you doing over there?" There was no answer and he seemed to realize for the first time that maybe he hadn't planned this quite as well as he thought he had. "Tony, where the hell are you? Lou?"
Ryder had moved away from the pit a little and was facing slightly toward Sandburg's left where the noise had come from, his eyes narrowed in agitation as he waved his arm, motioning Frank forward to investigate. The older man already had his gun out, running, past the trees and almost to the building, his flashlight shooting through the darkness of the steel framework. Sandburg heard the man swearing as he climbed over a short wall, weaving his way through the steel girders, "Goddamn little shit. Still wet behind the ears. Should just pop him and get the hell outta here. How the fuck did I get myself into this?"
The anthropology student turned back in time to see the silent ghost that was his partner fade into existence from the darkness on the back side of the concrete truck. There was a sharp movement from his upraised hand and the man known as Tommy dropped in place. Mike turned with a startled squawk, grabbing for his gun.
Reaching over the concrete chute, Ellison's fist caught him in the face and he stumbled backward, falling in the mud, losing his hold on the gun he'd managed to pull free. Ellison placed one hand on the concrete chute as if to vault over it, then backed off, realizing it couldn't be done in the small space between the truck and the pit. It would leave him too open for attack. He moved to circle the pit.
Seeing his men fall, Ryder was backing away, his features contorted in fury. "Tony! Lou!" he called frantically again.
The continued swearing of the gunman off to Sandburg's left almost drowned out his partner's voice calling, "Cascade PD, drop your weapons and get your hands up where I can see them."
"Shit, shit, shit," the anthropology student muttered tightly. Things were progressing a hell of a lot more quickly than he'd expected. "On my way, Jim," he said under his breath. Grabbing the steel bar, he turned to slip cautiously through the darkness.
Everything screamed at him to hurry, to reach his partner but he knew if he made any noise that would draw attention to himself that it would also put Ellison in danger. Sandburg knew that he was his partner's Achilles heel. The Sentinel would respond if he thought his Guide was in danger. Besides, there was still Frank.
And then Ryder's voice raised in something near a scream, "Frank!"
Light flashed off to one side bringing the police observer around in a silent crouch, the steel rod held ready as a weapon. Frank was already on his way back out of the building site, his gun up and ready as he half ran to see what his boss was yelling about. Automatically, Sandburg swung back. With no plan in mind other than to protect his partner, he headed in a converging path toward the gunman, trying to keep the construction materials between them as he ran.
Sandburg almost stumbled when he saw his partner slip as he rounded the corner of the concrete form. Both feet went out from under the big detective and he fell hard, his head barely missing the steel framework. He scrambled, regaining his feet but it was enough to slow him down, giving Ryder a chance to flee.
Sandburg heard Frank swear again as the gunman got a momentary clear view of what was going on. "Fucking cop." Without slowing his run, he squeezed off one shot. Sandburg heard it ricochet and saw Ryder's last remaining man, the inexperienced Mike, take off making a mad dash toward the car he'd arrived in. It sat with the driver's door open, almost an invitation. "Goddamn it!" Frank sword violently when he saw the younger man run. "Fuck!" And then viciousness took possession of his voice. "If I can kill that bastard cop I can still save it."
Heart pounding, Sandburg watched as Ellison seemed to hesitant for a brief second before heading after Ryder, Mike was a nobody, he could be rounded up anytime. They needed to catch Ryder onsite; the man had enough money to bring in a cadre of lawyers who would use every trick known to get their client off. Sandburg increased his speed knowing he couldn't give Frank time to aim, Ellison was in plain view, running in a half crouch as he chased the head of the murder squad.
Horrified, Sandburg watched as Frank cleared the building and slid to a stop, lifting his gun in a steadying two-handed grip as he took aim. Heart thudding painfully in his chest, the anthropology student realized he was too far away to stop him. Terror for his partner tore the scream from his throat, "No!" even as he lunged desperately, a screaming banshee surging forward out of the night, his mouth open in a dark hole of fear, his hair whipping wildly in the wind. Frank stumbled back, trying to swing around to face this new threat. One shot was squeezed off in fear, going wildly into the night. Sandburg never even slowed as he saw the gun being turned on him. Protecting his partner was the only thing that mattered. The steel rod swung in an arc, aimed for the older man's hands and the gun they held. And it connected. Before any more shots could be fired, the steel rod slammed into soft, yielding flesh and bone and there was one brief second when Sandburg could actually hear the sickening squish of the soft tissue and the grinding crunch of bones being displaced by steel moving at a speed too fast to follow in the limited light.
Sandburg felt the vibrations of the destruction move up the rod, through his hands and arms and lodge firmly in his brain. A memory that would be with him till death. The knowledge that he could do such a thing to another person terrified him but before it could become too firmly entrenched, before he could become so sickened by his actions he would throw the rod away and turn to vomit, he swung the rod again. Sideways this time, slamming into a well-muscled thigh, driving the man to the ground and the cold silence that had enveloped the small bubble of 'necessity' consuming Blair Sandburg was burst by a scream of utter agony as the anguish of two destroyed hands and a shattered leg devoured the consciousness of the hired thug.
Shoulders heaving, Sandburg stood, staring down at the destruction he had wrought on another human being and felt… only satisfaction that he had stopped him. The self-disgust would come later.
A car door slammed bringing Sandburg's head up with a snap. The engine of the black Taurus raced as Mike gunned it, twisting the wheel, trying to get the car headed in the right direction. A hailstorm of mud was flung from under the tires, the car fishtailing as it tried to gain purchase on the slippery ground.
He saw that his partner had gained a little on Ryder but the other man was nearing the limo. In the distance Sandburg could hear sirens approaching. Backup. Finally. Simon had come through.
Giving a last look to the man at his feet, he took off in a jog toward his partner. He was too far away to assist in Ryder's apprehension but he'd offer whatever help he could.
Then it happened. The Murphy's Law element that no one could plan for, that no one could predict. Mike, the inexperienced bad guy was also, evidently, an inexperienced driver as well. He lost control of the car. In the middle of a slide instead of letting off on the accelerator, he stomped it, sending the Taurus into a wild spin. And Sandburg stumbled to a stop watching in horrified fascination as the car progressed sideways in an uncontrolled slide, directly into the 100-ton construction crane sitting like a hunched giant in the darkness.
Neither Ryder nor the Sentinel had any idea of the danger. Only Sandburg, standing back on the sidelines had a full view. He tried to scream, to warn his partner but there was no time…and too much time…as he saw the car slide full side body into the back corner of the crane. Saw the crane give what looked like a slow motion lurch, saw the force of the crash travel up the long boom arm of the giant machine and finally down the spider thin filament of steel that held the massive generator aloft. The generator was slung sideways and it was like watching a fisherman toss a lure out at the end of a long fishing line. Only it bounced back.
And in the too little/too much time universe he was currently dwelling in, Sandburg's mind had time to watch and process and think rationally, that it wasn't fishing but the old skating game of crack the whip. He'd been suckered into being the last person in the long line when he was kid, picked on, he was sure, because of his size and his looks. He'd held on for several circuits of the mad serpentine line led by a teenager with more bulk than brains. Then the skating had gotten more and more wild, the movements violent, until eventually he'd been thrown free, whipped into the outside wall by the centrifugal force with enough energy to break child-sized bones. He'd been lucky. He'd gone home with massive bruises, a lump on his head and the beginning of a pair of black eyes that had terrified Naomi into putting him to bed immediately. She'd sat with him for the rest of the afternoon, saying she was just going to read to him to help him pass the time but he'd seen the worried look in her eyes as she watched him.
He saw Ellison glance upward without breaking stride and knew his partner must have heard something and was using his enhanced vision to check things out. What he saw must have scared him because he put on a burst of speed, literally throwing himself after Ryder's fleeing form, catching him just as the other man jerked the limo door open. The steel cable snapped with a sickening pop that could be heard even over the sound of Mike grinding the starter trying to restart the car engine he'd killed. Ellison grabbed the shoulder of the expensive coat and threw Ryder aside like so much trash, flinging him back away from the long black car even as he took two running steps himself, throwing his own body into a long classic dive, both arms stretched above his head like he was preparing to break the surface of the water. And the huge generator fell, crashing into the center of the roof of the limo as if it had been aimed. The long car folded around the missile as it ploughed through, spewing out shrapnel of glass and metal and earth before finally settling into a crater in the mud, the cacophony of noise dying.
And it should have been over. But Mike finally got the car started, shoving it into gear, stomping the accelerator. The rear bumper gave one last nudge to the crane's tires as the Taurus fishtailed once more before taking off through the field toward the front gate. There was an ominous creak of metal as the sounds from the car faded, the giant crane fighting a battle with inertia to settle its great weight back onto its base. But what should have been an inconsequential jolt from the Taurus came at the most inappropriate moment and combined with the sudden weight loss at the tip end of the long boom arm, it gave the huge machine all the impetus it needed. Creaking and groaning, it toppled, crashing to the ground so close to the giant evergreens that it took several of the longer branches with it.
Finally, Sandburg had the ability move. To shout. To scream. And he couldn't. Instead, he walked forward. Slowly. Not making a sound. He could see Ryder. He lay on this side of the steel arm of the crane. He couldn't see Ellison. The denial shuddered though his soul. No. Couldn't see his partner. Please, no. So he walked forward, his eyes never straying from the last place he'd seen his friend. I can't lose him. Not now. Ryder wasn't moving. Some part of his mind processed that, knew that the man had hit his head on the concrete curb of the center island. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter if Ryder was dead or if he was about to climb to his feet and escape. Sandburg wasn't capable of caring about him. Please, God. He could see his feet. Over the top of the crane boom, he could see his partner's feet. And he breathed. Because one of them moved. He's alive! And still he moved slowly, reveling in every inch of his partner that became visible as he moved forward. Thank you, thank you, thank you. His legs. His hips. His back. Every part of the man was covered in mud. Sandburg swallowed hard. Damn, that boom had come within a foot of hitting him.
Sandburg straddled the cold steel framework of the crane arm as he climbed over it feeling almost light headed with relief. He stood up just in time to see Ellison's head shift slightly in the mud. "Jim?" They'd done it. Somehow, they'd done it again. They'd saved the victim and captured the bad guys. And neither of them had been shot this time. Both of them had come out in one piece. Now all they had to do was wait for the cleanup. He knelt beside his partner running his hand up his back, trying to check to see if any of the shrapnel from the destroyed limo had hit him. "Jim?" There was no response and Sandburg felt his pulse quicken. He rubbed his hand lightly over his friend's head, checking for wounds, trying to see what was wrong in the small amount of light available to him. His fingers brushed his partner's face, tracing the closed eyelids. He was unconscious. Sandburg felt the odd angle of Ellison's shoulders and with ice in the center of his being, he traced the long arms upward where they were still extended above his friend's head from the mad dive he'd made away from the falling compressor.
OhGodOhGodOhGod. Sandburg wiped the vomit from his mouth and nose with a trembling hand, rubbing his hand across his muddy thigh. He knelt in the mud away from his partner, his head down, long hair whipping across his face in the wind, mixing with the vomit and the snot and the tears. He was crying. He could feel the heat of his tears as they seared a path down his cold cheeks. OhGodJimOhGodNo. His earlier thoughts crashed through his head like cymbals. 'Both of them had come out in one piece. Both of them had come out in one piece.' Only they hadn't! Jim Ellison lay behind him, both arms stretched above his head, disappearing under the crushing weight of the boom arm of the 100-ton crane.

~~<>~~

Consciousness returned slowly. Sick stomach. And a bad taste in his mouth that spoke of drugs. His head felt filled with cotton, his eyelids glued shut. Numbness. Where? Where was it this time? He tried to concentrate, pushing through the fuzziness in his mind. His hands, his arms.
And his eyes flew open in sudden horror, all traces of confusion burned away. He could feel his heart pounding suddenly in his chest. Hear it in the bloodbeat in his ears. Pounding so hard it hurt. His breath came quick, shallow. Silent. And he fought to bring it all back under control as he searched the white sterile ceiling above his head. He lay flat on his back. He could tell that. There was a pillow but it was a slim one, not offering much height. And that was good because he couldn't look. He couldn't bear to look. A soft sigh and small movement near the windows told him of his partner's presence. Of course. He knew his Guide would be beside him. Now what? Fear raged through him like a flashfire. And he searched within for strength and when it was there, he didn't know where it came from. "Chief?" he whispered.
Sandburg whipped around and was at his bedside in an instant. "Jim?" His hand brushed over Ellison's shoulder and on up to his temple, caressing lightly. "It's okay, Jim. It's okay," the younger man assured him.
Ellison's blue eyes held the eyes of his Guide. "Blair?"
And the younger man stilled at the use of his first name.
"Both?" he managed to whisper knowing his partner wouldn't lie to him. And he saw sickness sweep through Sandburg's troubled blue depths and knew it was echoed in his own eyes.
"Yeah, Jim," Sandburg whispered.
Ellison lifted his eyes to stare at the ceiling as he searched for something to say in a world where there were suddenly no words. "Where?" he choked out from between clinched teeth.
Sandburg's fingers were cool against his face as he tried to offer comfort and still answer the questions. Even the ones that weren't asked aloud. "The right, just above the wrist. The left, higher. Just below the elbow."
Ellison managed a terse nod but couldn't meet the eyes of his friend. A soul sickness swept through him leaving him weak and faint. "Oh, God," he whispered in despair fighting the threatening darkness that he wanted so desperately to give in to.
"I'm here, Jim," Sandburg promised.
"I never touched you, Blair. I never touched you when I had the chance."
Sandburg looked shocked. Ellison heard the staccato beat of his racing heart.
"Jim? What…"
Ellison's eyes suddenly locked onto his Guide's. "What do I do now, Chief?" he asked in a desperate whisper. "How can I be a Sentinel?"
The question caught him unprepared. "We'll find a way, Jim," Sandburg assured him urgently. "I promise you. We'll find a way." He bent over the bed slightly, his hand cupped against his friend's close-cropped hair. "Okay? You gotta believe me." And Sandburg watched, trying to understand the intensity behind the emotions playing across his partner's features. Disbelief that changed to uncertainty before Ellison's eyes closed for several long seconds as the muscles in his jaw bunched, jumping in response to his thoughts. And when his eyes opened, Sandburg saw the frantic heartsick grief; then slowly that was replaced by a resigned acceptance and finally the desperate need to believe in his Sentinel's eyes. "Jim?" he questioned, an explained fear in his gut.
"I'll try, Chief," Ellison promised in a whisper. "I will try." His eyes slid away to stare at the ceiling again. "Would you mind if… if I wanted to be alone for a bit?"
Sandburg looked surprised and shifted uncertainly. "No. No, of course not." His hands moved on the bed railing. "You need anything before I go?" he asked in confusion. "Some water or something?"
Ellison's tongue slid out over dry lips for a brief moment but he shook his head and his features paled. "No," he said softly.
But Sandburg was already pouring a glass of water from the ice-misted carafe of water on the bedside table. He added a straw and held it to his partner's lips.
Ellison took a swallow gratefully. "Thank you, Chief," he whispered. And his eyes closed as he fought the urge to throw up.
Sandburg sat the glass down and studied his friend's closed eyes. "You sure you want to be alone right now, Jim?"
Looking up, Ellison nodded, schooling his features into a mask of calm. "Yeah, I'm sure. I, ahh, I just need time to… think things through, you know?"
The anthropology student nodded. "Okay," he agreed brushing his hand over Ellison's shoulder. "If you need anything…" his eyes found the call button beside Ellison's head then darted back to his friend's face to find grief filled blue eyes studying him and he flushed.
"I'll call you," the Sentinel promised softly.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay." Sandburg patted his partner's shoulder. "You call. I'll be right outside the room. I won't go anywhere," he swore as he moved away. Sandburg had already pulled the door open a little when his partner spoke again.
"Blair?"
"Yeah, Jim?" He waited, not looking around. His hand slid up the edge of the door, holding on. Trying to give his friend all the time he needed.
Ellison's teeth sank into his lower lip before his tongue came out, wetting his lips and his eyes searched the ceiling again as he saw the movement of the younger man out of the corner of his eye. "When my…. arms have healed..." His voice faltered and he drew in a shaky breath. "Will they both …" And this time it broke completely. He couldn't keep the cracked sob from his voice as he asked in a rush, "Will both the prosthesis be hooks?"
Sandburg gagged, gripping the edge of the door tightly as his knees gave way.
Ellison, senses ever tuned to the man who was his Guide, heard the sound and the sudden increase in his partner's heart rate. He felt the blood drain from his face and he turned his head away, fighting the urge to curl his body around his arms, to hide his handicap. To hide.
He felt the rush of air as his friend lurched the few steps back to his bedside, smelled the fear-tainted sweat. He turned his head even further.
"No, Jim! No!" Sandburg cried.
He felt hard, straining fingers on his shoulder, sliding down his arm and he couldn't stop the small whimper that escaped from under his breath, his features twisting. And Sandburg's fingers bit into his upper arm.
"Jim. Look at me." Sandburg's voice was calm.
Ellison shook his head. A tiny movement. He couldn't. Not yet.
"Jim." It was his Guide's voice. Holding all the assurance in the world. "Look at me."
And the voice was asking for the one thing that had always been the hardest for him to give. Trust. It took several seconds for him to find the courage. He turned his head, looking his partner in the eyes. Blue eyes that held tears and love but no sympathy. No pity. Only reassurance. And promise. He saw Sandburg's hands move even further down but he couldn't make his eyes follow. It took all he was to hold on to the promise in those eyes. He felt his arm move. And something red moved into his line of vision and he found himself looking at a cast. A bright red cast that wrapped his upper arm, held his elbow bent at a ninety-degree angle and covered his lower arm down to the pink fingertips that stuck out the end. And Sandburg's other hand moved and a second identical cast appeared, encasing his other arm. Right down to the fingertips.
"No hooks, Jim," Sandburg said softly. "No prosthesis. Just you."
Looking up over the tops of his own hands to the tears in his partner's eyes he said in confusion, "The crane… But I saw… How?"
"Ahh, Jim," Sandburg breathed. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd regained consciousness." Very gently he laid Ellison's hands back in his lap rubbing a shaking hand through his hair. "When you asked 'both' before, I thought you were asking if both arms were broken. I didn't know you'd seen the crane." Lowering the bed railing, he sat down beside his partner.
"How?" Ellison asked again.
Sandburg rubbed rough hands over his exhausted features. "You actually have Bobby Roberts to thank."
"Roberts?" The big detective looked confused. "Is he okay?"
The younger man nodded with a smile. "Yeah, he's fine. Back home in the bosom of his family but he's the one who had steel reinforcement I-beams cast inside the curbs that ran around the center island holding those trees. Did it to protect the roots of the trees while the construction was going on. The ecology recommendations for this whole industrial park were based on his ideas. When the crane came crashing down it hit those steel I-beams and kept the boom from crushing your arms. That and the mud. The ground was soft enough that it had a little give to it." His voice trembled a little as he added, "A foot or so in the other direction…." he let his voice trail off.
"I get to keep my hands," Ellison said in a shaky voice.
Sandburg nodded. "Yeah. You get to keep your hands." Uncertainly crossed the detective's face as Sandburg watched. "What?" he asked.
"Why can't I feel them?"
Sandburg's grin was only a little shaky as he asked, "Where're your dials, man?" There was a second of concentration, then he saw his partner's eyes widen with pain. "You'd turned them down, hadn't you?"
Ellison winced, shifting a little with the sudden discomfort. "Yeah, I guess I had. I looked up, saw that crane boom and cranked them down just before I passed out."
"Well, turn them back down a bit now. There's no reason for you to be in pain," Sandburg instructed.
"No," Ellison denied with a look of wonder. "No, I don't think so. I like feeling the pain. This is a good kind of pain. Anything's good right now. Believe me."
"You may not think so after six weeks of not being able to do anything for yourself," Sandburg warned with a grin. His fingers rubbed lightly over the fingertips exposed just below the end of the cast enclosing Ellison's left arm.
A tremulous smile crossed Ellison's features. "I can feel your fingers," he whispered. He shook his head, his smile widening. "After coming so close to it being forever, six weeks won't be anything," he said.
The anthropology student laughed. "And how many times will I have to remind you of that before this is over."
"Oh, probably once or twice," the detective admitted. His smile softened as he lifted the heavy cast, moving his right hand toward Sandburg's face. Very gently he brushed the exposed fingertips down the line of his partner's cheek.
Holding perfectly still, Sandburg waited, knowing the Sentinel would hear the increase in his heart rate, feel the blood pulsing through his veins. "What're you doing, Jim?"
Ellison watched the movement of his fingers slide down the gentle curve of his friend's cheek and over the whisper soft lips. He smiled at the quickened breath warming his fingers. "I love you, Chief," he said softly. "I didn't tell you that earlier. I don't want there to be any old regrets."

~~<>~~

Pulling the truck into its usual parking place in the police garage, Blair Sandburg shut the engine off, popped his seat belt then reached over to release his partner's. It was such an automatic thing now that he raised startled eyes to his friend's face when he found his searching fingers suddenly entwined with longer ones.
"I can do it myself now, Chief," Ellison reminded him.
Sandburg blushed. "Sorry, Jim. Habit." He started to pull his hand free as he turned toward the door. Ellison's fingers tightened on his and he stopped, feeling suddenly breathless for reasons he couldn't explain.
"Don't be sorry, Chief." Ellison turned slightly in his seat, taking his partner's hand in both of his. His fingers were gentle, the touches almost not there as he traced the angles of his friend's hand. He turned the hand over and let his fingers slide down the palm, tracing the life line from the wrist along the curve of the strong thumb, then his finger moved to the head line with all its myriad of tiny branches and finally the strong heart line, so deep it looked almost like a scar. "Everything's more sensitive now," he said softly.
Several seconds passed as the thinking parts of Sandburg's brain tried to process that. Everything seemed to be focused on the feel of his partner's fingers. "Ahhh, yeah," he stammered. "Makes sense." He cleared his throat. "Couple of things probably happening in that," he said, bringing his brain back online. "You haven't had much chance to use your sense of touch, especially your hands, with the casts and all. This is really the first time since they came off. And since you haven't been able to use your hands, I'm guessing all the calluses have faded." He pulled at his hand half-heartedly then stopped when it was evident Ellison wasn't letting go.
"I couldn't have made it through this without you, Chief." Ellison's voice was soft, almost a caress in itself. "And I don't just mean the physical part of it."
Sandburg took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. This was important. He needed to have his brain working, not just sliding through on emotions alone. "Jim," he started, gently disentangling his hand from his friend's, "you haven't said anything in five weeks. Not since that night."
Ellison nodded silently, looking down at his hands where they rested on his jean clad thighs.
"Why?" the anthropology student asked in a puzzled voice. "I mean you said you loved me there in the hospital but when I tried to make a couple of advances the week after you came home, man, I've gotta tell you, I've had warmer receptions from Dean Edwards, and you know how much that woman hates me." He moved his hands up to hold the steering wheel. "What we talked about that night," he shook his head, "what we started to talk about," he amended, "was it a mistake? Did we go too far too fast?"
"No." Ellison was shaking his head even before his partner finished speaking. "No, of course not. I've gotta tell you, Chief, I don't think there's much chance how I feel about you is ever going to change." He smiled. "You are firmly entrenched in my heart."
"Yeah?" the younger man questioned shyly.
"Yeah." There was no doubt in the detective's voice.
"Then why?' Sandburg stared at his friend in confusion and was surprised to see a blush steal up the sculpted features.
Ellison took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Chief, you've done everything for me for the last month. Hell, longer than that, closer to six weeks. Literally everything. I don't think I realized how helpless I'd be when I was still in the hospital. With both of my arms in casts I couldn't even feed myself. You had to do everything, not just feed me but bathe me and shave me, brush my teeth, get me dressed and undressed." His blush deepened and he wouldn't meet his friend's eyes.
And for the first time, Sandburg understood. "And you handled it so well, even making little jokes. I should have known better."
Ellison looked surprised. "Why should you have known?"
"Because I know you," his partner said. "I know how independent you are. How much you hate it when you're not in control. I should have known. You accepted everything too easily."
Ellison shook his head. "In my head it was easy most of the time. Any time it started getting bad, too much to handle, all I had to do was remind myself how close I came to losing everything. Permanently." His lips quirked in a wry smile. "That just sort of put everything back in perspective real quick, you know? But the demands that were placed on you, the demands I put on you, were unreasonable."
"I didn't mind, Jim," Sandburg said quietly.
"I know, Chief," he agreed, then he repeated even more softly, "I know. And with you having to do everything for me, I tried to make things as easy for you as I could."
Sandburg laughed. "Yeah, well, that should have been a dead give away right there!"
That brought an embarrassed laugh from the detective. "Yeah, maybe." He took a breath. "It was the little things that got to me the most. I didn't realize what the little things would cost." His hand moved slightly to indicate the truck seat. "Like the seat belt. And you having to scratch my head when it itched. And having to hold a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer to my mouth every time I wanted a drink.
"I couldn't move into a relationship with you as well," he stated. He lifted his head then, his eyes pleading for understanding even as his flush deepened. "Hell, Sandburg, you were wiping my ass and holding my dick when I had to take a piss. I wasn't about to let you give me a hand masturbating as well, for God's sake."
Embarrassment had taken firm control of the man beside him and Sandburg chuckled in spite of himself. "Well, strictly speaking, if somebody else's hand is on your dick, I don't think it can be called masturbation anymore, man."
"You know what I mean, Sandburg," Ellison said gruffly. He ducked his head back down to watch the movement of his right hand as he slowly slid his thumb over the pads of his fingers, enjoying the feel of the whirls and lines of his fingerprints.
Sandburg took pity on his partner. "It wouldn't have been masturbation anyway, Jim," he said in a soft low voice and was pleased with himself when he saw the flush deepen in his friend's cheeks. Who would have guessed that an ex-covert ops Ranger could blush like that?
"I know, Chief. That's why I couldn't let it happen."
Sandburg straightened slightly, turning in his seat to fold his right leg half under him. "I'm not following you here, Jim."
Ellison's hand left his own thigh and took up residence on his partner's knee, the sensitive fingers sliding gently along the inside seam of the worn jeans. "I didn't want our first time to be you jerking me off when I couldn't return the favor." His voice dropped a little lower. "I don't want it to be jerking off at all, I want it to be making love. I want it to be special."
Watching the slow slide of the long fingers up and down his inner thigh, Sandburg seemed to have trouble catching his breath as he replied. "So, why didn't you just tell me that?"
Ellison smiled. "Because I was afraid you'd try to talk me out of it and I knew if you ever started talking I'd never have the strength to resist. I wanted it too badly."
Sandburg laughed. "I love you, Jim Ellison. Do you know that?"
Ellison's grin brightened the interior of the truck cab. "Well, I was damn sure hoping."
Neither man noticed the arrival of the dark green luxury car. They didn't see it pull into the parking spot reserved for the Captain of Major Crime.
"So why now? Why here?" Sandburg asked. "Why not back at the loft?"
Ellison lifted his head to look him straight in the eye. "Because I didn't want to say anything in a place too personal, too secluded, in case you'd changed your mind and needed an out."
Sandburg sucked a deep breath. "Not a chance in hell, Jim." His hand came down firmly on his partner's where it was still rubbing his leg. "But you have got to stop that right now or we're gonna find out just how secluded this damn garage is." Sandburg's voice dropped lower, his breathing quickening. "'Cause you know that restraint you were talking about not having? Well, I've got even less and all I want to do right now is…"
"Let's go home, Chief," Ellison interrupted urgently. "Let's go home. Now. We can see the guys upstairs tomorrow." His breath quickened at the sudden look of open lust in his partner's eyes. "Or maybe even the day after," he added with a slight hitch in his breathing.
The sudden loud slap of a large hand on the metal hood of the truck jerked both men upright with identical startled oaths. Automatically Ellison reached with one hand to shield his partner even as his other was grabbing for the small of his back where his gun usually rode, even though he hadn't carried it in six weeks. He stilled when he saw the grinning face of his captain.
"Upstairs, gentlemen," the booming voice commanded. "I think you both have paperwork to fill out."
"Damn it, Simon," Ellison grunted, too softly for the big man to hear. He glanced at his partner. "No way out now, Chief."
Two quick knuckle raps to the truck hood demanded immediate action as the tall black man walked around the truck to the passenger side.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Sandburg muttered, but he smiled brightly at the man who stood waiting for them. "I used to think I liked that man," he added darkly under his breath.
The comment startled a snort of laughter out of the Sentinel as he opened the door and climbed from the truck.
Simon looked at his man in surprise when the door opened before he reached for it. His eyes traveled downward to Ellison's arms and a wide grin split his face. "Welcome back, Jim," he said warmly, taking his detective's hand in a surprisingly gentle handshake.
"Thank you, sir," Ellison said. He held both hands up, wiggling his fingers. "Almost as good as new." His eyes shifted to stare at the shiny black bag Sandburg held by its handles as he came around the truck bright blue tissue paper sticking artistically out the top.
"Something I told Megan I'd bring in," Sandburg said vaguely in explanation at the question in his partner's eyes.
They chatted as they crossed the garage, Simon Banks bringing them up to date on the case. "As you know, Ryder's out on bail awaiting prosecution. The other guys weren't so lucky. Nobody's come forward to post their bail so they're just waiting their turn in jail." The Captain pressed the call button on the elevator.
"Simon, what about Ryder's man? The one named Frank?" Ellison asked, knowing his partner needed to know the condition of the man he'd attacked while protecting his Sentinel. "I know it was touch and go for a couple of weeks."
"Then he developed that infection," Sandburg added without looking up.
"Frank?" Simon questioned. "Oh, you mean the guy Sandburg almost tore the hands off of?" He didn't notice the sudden sick looks on the faces of his two men. Neither of them had told anyone of Ellison's first few minutes of terror that night, after he awoke in the hospital. Only the emergency rescue crew who pulled him from beneath the crane knew how he'd been found on the construction site. "Remind me to never piss you off, Sandburg," Simon said with a laugh.
"Yeah, well," Sandburg said weakly, "he was trying to shoot Jim."
"I'll try not to ever make that mistake," Simon joked as the elevator door slid open with a ping and all three men stepped inside. The police captain reached to press the button for the eighth floor.
"So how is he?" Ellison asked.
Simon shrugged. "Doctors say he'll probably lose a little of the range of motion in his hands but he'll recover. They had to pin him back together after you got through with him, Sandburg. Between his hands and his leg, the surgery lasted almost fifteen hours."
"But he will recover?" Sandburg asked in a low voice.
Simon finally registered the level of discomfort in his young police observer. "He doesn't hold a grudge against you, Sandburg," the big cop said.
Sandburg looked startled.
"I was there when they took his statement," Simon explained. "He was very pragmatic about it all. Said it all went with the territory and he'd known it when he started working for JC." Simon shrugged. "He's looking at three to five. He turned State's evidence," he continued before they could say anything about the light sentence. "D.A. figured they could use him after Roberts refused to testify."
"Roberts? He refused to testify against the man who tried to murder him?" Sandburg said in disbelief.
"The old man," Ellison guessed grimly. "Ryder, senior."
Simon nodded. "Yeah, probably. But it didn't matter anyway once Frank Sorci agreed to testify." He stepped out of the elevator nodding to a passing colleague as he led the way down the hall to the double doors leading into the Major Crime department. He entered then stepped back, holding the door open for his two men. A big grin graced his face giving him the look of a very satisfied cat sitting beside a small pile of feathers. "Welcome back, Jim," he repeated as Ellison stepped past him with a puzzled look.
An echoing shout jerked Ellison's head around to find all his Major Crime co-workers and several people from other departments yelling and clapping, all with big smiles of welcome on their faces. He was pulled into their midst with warm hugs and hand shakes and claps on the back.
Sandburg stood in the doorway with a huge grin, watching his partner wander through the crowd, chatting with friends and catching up on events. A slightly bewildered smile lit Ellison's face.
"You, too, Sandburg," Simon said.
Sandburg looked up with a question.
"Welcome back," the Captain said gruffly. "Jim wasn't the only one missed, you know."
The grad student's look of surprise turned to a shy grin of pleasure. "Thanks, Simon," he said before turning back to the room full of people. With a warm smile that was very like a proud parent watching a beloved child, Sandburg watched his friend, knowing Ellison needed this show of support from his fellow workers. After a few minutes, all those who weren't part of Major Crime proper began drifting back to their own departments. Crime and city government waited for no man, not even the Sentinel of the Great City. Soon it was just the men and women from their own shift who were left, Rhonda and Megan, Brown, Rafe, Taggart and Simon.
Sandburg took his usual seat behind Ellison's desk on the back side of his partner's chair. Ellison half-leaned, half-sat on the front edge of his desk, his long legs stretched out in front of him, one ankle crossed over the other. His arms were folded across his chest as he listened to the chatter of his friends.
"Well, I gotta tell you, man. I for one will be glad to see your sorry ass back at work," Henri Brown informed Ellison.
Ellison grinned. "Why's that, Brown? Simon been giving you and Rafe those fun cases?"
"Well, with you and Sandburg gone he had to have somebody to pick on," Rafe said with a grin that was only half teasing.
Everyone knew the team of Ellison and Sandburg drew the most difficult cases, their solve rate explained why. Their rather odd pairing worked in ways no one understood. After Jack Pendergast's death, Ellison had never been partnered with anyone for long. Then Sandburg came into the picture and everyone had secretly taken bets on how long the bouncy, energetic young student would last before Ellison bit his head off and he went running back to his ivory towers of academia. But to everyone's surprise, the inexperienced grad student had done the thing no one else had ever successfully done. He stood up to Ellison. He'd done more than that, he'd gone toe to toe with him, getting right in his face, not backing down on anything that was important to him. And to everyone's amazement the partnership worked. Sandburg brought attributes into the equation that Ellison lacked. His enthusiasm for everything, especially new experiences, and his friendly non-judgemental attitude left everyone he dealt with feeling like they'd known him all their lives. And despite intelligence that was several steps beyond brilliant he never gave the impression that he felt he was smarter than anyone else. His training as an anthropologist enabled him to look at the whole picture when they were presented with a case and it was his abilities as often as it was Ellison's that brought their cases to a close.
"Yeah," Taggart agreed in his deep slow voice. "Let's just say that none of us will be sorry to see you and Blair come back."
Ellison nodded with a warm smile. "It'll be good to be back, too." He dropped his arms, propping his hands on the edge of his desk on either side of his body as he paused, looking a little self-conscious. "I know you guys probably don't want to hear this so I'll say it quick and get it over with." His voice was totally serious. "Sandburg and I appreciate all the help you've given us over the last six weeks. It would've been really hard for him to keep up with his classes if all of you hadn't been willing to step in and baby sit me while he had to be at school. I know I'm possibly not the most easy person to be around on a normal day."
"Naw, really?" Simon dead-panned. "Any of you ever notice that?" he asked looking around.
The snickers of laughter sent a blush to Ellison's cheeks before he continued defiantly. "I just wanted to say that I appreciate the way you've all treated the situation. With me not able to do much of anything for myself, I expected a lot of kidding and practical jokes. I wanted to thank you for not doing that, for being considerate of the situation we were dealing with." He shifted a little on the desk. "I even heard you came down pretty hard on some of the uniforms because of a couple of comments the time we came into the office. That surprised me. Thank you."
The four men before him looked at each other with little smug smiles of self-satisfaction. There was a chorus of voices, "Sure, Jim."
"No problem, man."
"Glad we could help out."
"Our pleasure."
The two women looked at each other in disgust. "Can you believe these guys?" Rhonda asked. "You're giving them way too much credit, Jim."
Ellison looked up in surprise. "What?"
"It's Sandy you should be thanking, Ellison. Not these galahs," Megan said. "You should have heard some of the things they had planned."
"Galahs?" Ellison asked. He heard his partner's little snort of surprise and knew the younger man had picked up on the jab behind the Australian's words. Everyone else looked as confused as he felt.
Megan's mouth twisted in mirth as she explained. "A galah is a very pretty parrot we have in Australia but it just has no sense. The original bird-brain. Just be glad you've got Sandy on your side."
Ellison looked back over his shoulder at his partner. "Sandburg? What did you do?"
Sandburg looked up in surprise from where he'd been playing with the edge of the gift bag he'd brought in with him. "Me?" He shrugged. "I didn't do much." At his friend's skeptical look he grinned. "I was just able to give everyone a little demonstration of what it was gonna be like for you."
Seeing the looks of discomfort on the faces of other detectives Ellison turned back to his partner. "What exactly did you do, Chief?" When Sandburg didn't answer he turned back to his co-workers. "Connor?" he demanded when nobody answered his questioning look.
"You never wondered why Sandy wasn't at hospital the night before you were released, Ellison?" She sighed at his confused look. "Sandy invited everyone over to the loft for his little demonstration, as he calls it. Rhonda and I had already asked him about helping when you were back home. We just started a few days early."
"Oh for Pete's sake, Connor," Simon complained. "Don't make such a long drawn out deal about it."
"Yeah," Brown agreed, glad to have someone else take the lead in the explanation. Anything was better than all the standing around looking like they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. "Sandburg invited everybody over for chili and to watch the game."
"Only he had these metal brace things he'd had made," Rafe continued the story.
And the telling became a group effort, each of the four men taking turns.
"They were just strips of metal about two inches wide that were cut at a ninety-degree angle," Brown said.
"As each of us arrived, he had Rhonda and Connor strap them to our arms so it was like we each had our arms in casts just like you," Taggart explained.
"We used gauze bandages and wrapped their arms all the way down to their fingertips," Rhonda explained softly. "Blair thought if they knew what it was like personally maybe they would all be a little more compassionate."
"And this lasted for how long?" Ellison asked in astonishment.
"All evening," Brown stated. "They even had to feed us because with our hands all wrapped up, we couldn't hold a spoon."
"Wouldn't have made any difference even if I could have held the spoon, I couldn't have gotten it to my mouth with those things strapped to my arms," Taggart said.
"It took all the fun out of watching the game," Rafe complained. "Connor kept dribbling beer all down my chin every time I wanted something to drink." He grinned. "It was a good thing I didn't get pulled over for something on my way home. I smelled like a distillery. I would have been arrested on the spot."
"You kept jumping around like a bloody roo," Megan said in her own defense. "Every time I'd try to give you a drink you'd jump to your feet or dodge sideways."
"I was trying to watch the game," Rafe explained patiently. "You kept getting your head in the way."
"Well, excuse me. We were trying to keep the four of you happy. 'Connor, I need a drink.'" Her voice took on an annoying whining note. "'Connor, I need some chips. No, not those chips. The other chips.'"
"'Rhonda, my nose itches. Or my back, or ear, or chin,'" Rhonda continued. "I have never met such a whinny group of tough guys in my life."
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Megan grinned at the other woman. "I'll take my sister's four kids over these guys any day of the week."
"And they say women are the weaker sex," Rhonda scoffed. "Heaven protect us from helpless males."
Everyone was laughing, Ellison hardest of all.
"Man, you have no idea," Brown said. Then they all realized what he'd said and the room sobered. "But I guess you do, don't you?"
Ellison's grin let them know it was all right. "Where were you during all this," he asked his partner.
Sandburg grinned. "I had bathroom duty."
There was a moment of confused silence then Ellison's eyes widened in stunned disbelief. "You didn't?" He turned back to his friends. "You mean...?" Rafe was the only one whose blush actually showed but the other three looked decidedly uncomfortable.
There was a moment of total silence, then Sandburg said easily, "No, but I let them each think I did." Over exclamations of protests and disbelief by the four men involved, the anthropology student explained. "I knew the bathroom… difficulties were gonna be your biggest problem so I wanted to make sure they understood. And I gotta admit, I made the chili a little too salty and had only really salty snacks like potato chips and salted peanuts and nacho chips with overly salted salsa so they'd be really thirsty. Then I told Rhonda and Megan to give them all they could to drink." He looked a little sheepish. "I needed each of them to have to go to the bathroom at least once."
"Why you sneaky little bastard," Simon said in admiration.
Sandburg grinned wickedly. "Well, yeah. I guess the description does fit," he admitted. "But I take exception to that 'little' part."
"And you two were in on it." Simon eyed the two women.
"We do what we can," Rhonda said with false modestly.
"The women of Major Crime have always pulled their share of the load," Megan said not quite so concerned with modesty, false or otherwise.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Ellison protested holding up his hands. "You left out the best part. What happened?"
The four men in question looked around in discomfort and it was finally left up to Sandburg to begin. "Simon was the first to cave," he said, "but he held off a while longer when I volunteered to give him a hand."
"Hell, I'd been drinking coffee all afternoon while we worked on the Ryder case. That was the day we found out Bobby Roberts was refusing to testify. We were all frustrated thinking Ryder was going to walk." He glared at Sandburg. "And yes, I did notice your damn chili was too salty but my grandmother taught me better than to criticize my host." He turned his glare on Ellison. "I know. I know. You want to know details." He grimaced. "As soon as I got to the loft and found out what was going on, I knew what Sandburg was trying to do and thought it was a good idea. Anybody with half a brain would know how difficult this would be for a person to adjust to, so I supported the concept." His mouth quirked. "It was the reality that was difficult." He sighed and spoke directly to the anthropologist. "I knew if I told you to you'd undo my arms, Sandburg. I also knew that if I insisted, the other guys would, too. And I realized this was too important for that."
"Thank you, Captain," Sandburg said seriously.
"It took a while but I finally gave in," Simon told Ellison. "We went into the bathroom and Sandburg, damn his hide, got as far as reaching to undo my pants before saying how awkward he felt with my position as Captain of Major Crime and basically being his boss and that if I wouldn't say anything to the other guys he'd undo my hands and let me take care of business myself."
"That's almost the same thing you told me," Rafe protested. "And I bought it."
"We all bought it, Rafe. We were meant to," Taggart explained. "You're a very convincing salesman, Blair."
"I couldn't have you guys teasing Jim," Sandburg said seriously. "Not about this."
Ellison straightened slowly and turned completely around to face his friend. "Chief?" he questioned.
Sandburg shrugged with a little smile. "I just figured, you know, 'walk a mile in my shoes.'" He shifted under the intent gaze of his partner. A little thread of uncertainty ran through him when Ellison didn't respond. Surely he hadn't angered his friend by his actions. Then a slow smile of such tenderness lit his partner's features that it took Sandburg's breath, causing his heart to pound at an alarming rate. "Jim?" His lips barely moved with the Sentinel soft whisper.
And Ellison's mouth moved, forming silent words that Sandburg had no problem at all understanding. I love you, Blair.
Sandburg's left hand moved and he knocked the gift bag out of his lap and bent down to pick it up, hiding his face. Because he knew, if for one more second, he stared at the love lighting his partner's face, he would launch himself across the desk and straight into Ellison's arms, outing both of them right in front of God and Captain Simon Banks and the entire Major Crime bullpen. It gave him a chance to fight his heartbeat back into a more normal rate. As he straightened up only slightly flushed, a big grin split his face deflating the serious moment as he said, "I had to do something. I knew I had to live with him for the next six weeks."
Ellison picked up a pen that was lying on the desk beside his hand and threw it at his partner. "Hey, I wasn't that bad," he protested.
Sandburg caught the pen with a grin. "No, you weren't," he agreed. "And for that you get a reward." Picking up the bag, he sat it on the table.
Their co-workers crowded the desk to get a better view as Ellison eyed the black gift bag warily.
"Open it, Ellison," Megan said. "He's your partner."
"And that's supposed to reassure me?"
"Aww, come on. It doesn't have a snake in it."
"With Sandburg you can never be too sure of that, Connor," Ellison informed her, sending the anthropology student a look of total distrust.
Sandburg's smile widened and if anything, his look of innocence grew. "Now Jim, if you can't trust your partner, who can you trust?" he asked.
"Does sort of make you wonder, doesn't it?" Ellison teased his friend. Using two fingers, he gingerly took hold of the handles and pulled the bag toward him, trying to look inside without shifting the tissue paper. He looked down at his partner with a surprised look of disbelief. "Sandburg, tell me you didn't do what I think you did." He reached into the blue paper and his hands closed around something soft and fuzzy as his friend's eyes sparkled with laughter. "You did," Ellison accused.
"What is it, Jim?" Brown demanded.
"Yeah, show us, Jim," Taggart agreed.
"Ahh, it's nothing, guys," Sandburg told them. "Jim and I were on stakeout the night all this started and he happened to mention how much he wanted some of these."
Ellison looked startled. "Sandburg…" he said with a warning glint of laughter.
"What is it?" Megan demanded.
"Just a blast from his past," the young anthropologist said with a grin, standing to step up to the desk.
"I'll give you a blast," Ellison threatened.
"Okay, okay," Simon said. His hand came down heavily on his detective's shoulder as his patience ran out. "Let's see what the kid's done this time."
Ellison withdrew his hand, tugging on a red string. Giving a final jerk, an ocean of blue tissue paper spilled over the desk and the Sentinel was left holding the middle of an eighteen inch long string with a large pair of red fuzzy dice that danced and swung from the ends. A few snickers of laughter met the sight and one surprised gasp of, "Hey, I remember those," from Megan. Several heads turned toward her and the young Australian looked defensive. "Well, I do. My dad had a pair in his old 1952 Holden ute." At everyone's blank look she blushed slightly and explained. "You Yanks would call it a truck."
"Hey, Ellison," Brown said, "all you need now is one of those fuzzy little dogs to sit on the dash with his head bobbing up and down." The young detective bobbed his head up and down to illustrate.
"Brown, you are a bobble head," Ellison told him with a smirk.
"Hey! What about one of those hula girls with the grass skirts. Her hips would wiggle every time he hit a bump," Rafe suggested. "The way Ellison drives he'd wear her out."
Ellison glared at his partner's snicker which only made the young man laugh out loud.
With a grin Simon called a halt. "Okay, people. I think you all have work you could be doing." His voice took on a hint of a threat. "If not, I'm sure I can find something for you."
Saying goodbye to Ellison and Sandburg, the Major Crime detectives wandered back to their desks. But the idea had stuck in their heads and they continued to discuss ways to 'improve' Ellison's '69 Ford pickup.
"Pompoms," Taggart said wistfully with something near awe in his voice as his hands sketched the idea. "Along the top of the front and rear windows."
"Blue to match the truck," Megan said, her dark eyes alight with laughter.
"Don't forget the tiger stripped fake fur for the dash," the Captain of Major Crime called, not to be outdone.
"Gee, thanks, Simon," Ellison said dryly. "Like they needed any encouragement."
"My pleasure, Jim," Simon assured him with a wide grin.
"What about those lights that encircle the back window and strobe when the brakes are applied?" Rafe said.
"And the car horns that play different tunes." Taggart was making notes.
Ellison groaned seeing a long line of incredibly tacky gag gifts in his future. Making a silent vow to keep the doors to his truck locked for the next several months, Ellison pushed his partner out the double doors and down the hall toward the elevator. Laughing, their police Captain followed them. Ellison dropped the pair of red dice around his friend's neck. "See what you've started, Lucky?" he demanded with a grin.
"Yeah. Great, isn't it?" the anthropology student laughed. "We'll have the truck all fixed up for you in no time," he promised.
Simon Banks looked at his best detective. "So the doctor says it'll be another week before you're back on the streets, huh?" he asked, frowning his displeasure.
"Physical therapy, Simon," Sandburg said in defense of his partner. "They only took the casts off an hour ago."
"The doctor thinks it'll take at least that long to get the muscles back up to something even resembling normal," Ellison finished, flexing his hands with a little laugh. "I have no strength at all." He looked up. "Not the way I want to go back to the streets."
"Well, then I guess you'll be on desk duty starting tomorrow," Simon said smugly. "I'm sure the rest of the bullpen will be able to find things for you to do until you're fit to be back on regular duty."
Ellison looked startled, his mouth opening but nothing coming out except a surprised, "Uhhh," as he searched for something to say. Luckily his partner was a little quicker.
"No can do, Simon," the anthropology student said blandly. His hands gripped the fuzzy red dice that hung around his neck, swinging them back and forth as much as the string would allow. "He's not supposed to be back at work until at least Monday, and only then after the doctor has checked him out." He reached over to press the elevator call button then stared up at their Captain with a serene smile as he continued to lie through his teeth. "Jim insisted we stop by here on the way back to the loft so he could tell you himself. He feels bad enough as it is that him being out of commission has left you short handed. Isn't that right, Jim?" He turned his smile toward his friend, never doubting for a second that his partner would back him up.
For one brief instant, Ellison stared at the love of his life and watched as his partner's left eye, the one away from Simon Banks, closed in a decidedly evil wink, briefly hiding the glee in the bright blue eye. A slow sweet smile pushed the Sentinel's lips upward. "Oh, yeah, Simon," he said. "At least Monday. I've got a doctor's appointment Monday morning," at least that part was true, he thought, "so with any luck I may be back at work Monday afternoon." He glanced at his Captain, trying for the guileless look on his partner's face.
Captain Simon Banks stared at his best team with a look that told them both he didn't believe them. Not for one second. Deliberately he reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a thick dark cigar. Lovingly he opened it, peeling the cellophane away in a precise ritual pattern. "There's nothing like a good cigar," he said, totally off subject. He rolled the hand wrapped tobacco between his thumb and fingers, scenting along its length. The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. Almost absently he slid the paper ring off the cigar and handed it to Sandburg. "A really good cigar," he added with a slow Cheshire Cat smile. "Sandburg, take your partner home. I don't want to see either of you before Tuesday morning." He watched as Sandburg pushed his Sentinel into the elevator and both men turned back to face him, Sandburg pressing the button that would take them to the garage level. Simon slid the smoke into the leather case that had been a gift from his son and smiled benignly at his men. "Do we understand one another?"
Both men nodded silently, carefully not looking at one another until after the door slid closed in the face of a very intelligent police captain. They knew if he needed them, Simon would call, until then they'd been given a gift. One they both appreciated.
"I knew I liked that man," Sandburg breathed, giving a little bounce of excitement as the elevator started downward.
Ellison nodded politely to the two uniformed officers waiting to enter the elevator as he stepped out. The tall police detective turned to look down at the slightly shorter police observer. Nothing was said, but the pulses of both men raced and as Sandburg walked past him on the way back to the truck, Ellison fell in behind him, his right hand coming to rest on the small of his partner's back. Right where it belonged.
A knowing smile pulled Sandburg's lips upward at the almost circular movement at his back. He recognized the same pattern his partner had been making that night six weeks before. "Jim?" he said breathlessly. "Are you drawing hearts on my back again?" He heard the smile in his Sentinel's voice.
"Only until we get home, Chief," Jim Ellison promised. "Only until we get home."


~~The End~~

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