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So, how do I look?" he asked, and, holding out his arms like a tightrope walker, turned around slowly. The creases in his trousers could have sliced bread, and his starched shirt collar could have supported a family of four.

It was the first time I'd seen him in uniform.

"Not bad." I reached out and straightened his tie a fraction. "The hat goes lower in the front." Our hands collided on the brim and I pulled back, letting him adjust it.

"Okay?" He stood solemnly at attention, and I hardly recognized him. It wasn't just the clothes and the short hair, but the way he held himself - shoulders back, weight on both feet, hands still - so different from the guy who'd shared my apartment for four years.

I gave him a quick once-over and nodded. "You're good to go, Chief."

He broke into a smile and looked around the packed auditorium. "Where are you sitting?"

"Over there," I pointed, "on the right. Simon told Megan and H to save a block of seats."

He shot me a suspicious look. "You guys aren't going to, like, embarrass me, are you?"

"Embarrass you, Sandburg? What makes you think we'd embarrass you?" I cuffed him on the side of his head.

"Hey! Watch the hat!" He smacked my arm and straightened his hat again. "What makes me think that?" he crossed his arms and continued with a snort. "Because I know you guys. Remember what Megan and H did to Rafe when he won the Community Service award?"

"Yeah." I smiled at the memory. "And I seem to remember you joining in the fun."

"Yeah, well, that was different." He frowned at the shiny toe of his black shoe.

"Don't worry." I patted his shoulder. "No one's going to embarrass you at the ceremony. We figured we'd wait until the party, get you plastered, and let nature take its course."

"Okay." He grinned at me. "I can live with that."

It was like one of those weird pictures that are nothing but psychedelic patterns one minute, and then, after you've stared at it until your eyes are watering and you think that you're the butt of some kind of elaborate practical joke, you suddenly see the dinosaurs or eagles or kangaroos snap into place. Blair was still there, under the navy serge and the black shoes and the rigid posture. I'd just lost sight of him for a minute.

A knot of blue uniforms was collecting at the back of the auditorium. "Looks like it's your turn up at bat, Hank." I gave him a wink. "Knock 'em dead, Tiger."

He snorted. "You're mixing your metaphors, Ellison." Hooking a finger in his stiff collar, he tugged at it. "God, I hate ceremonies. And starched shirts."

"You'll do okay, Chief." I started toward the seats, then turned back. "But you might want to cover your ears when they call your name."

His eyes widened for a second, then he glared at me. "Fuck," he said quietly. "If H brought his air horn..."

I chuckled. "Gotcha, Sandburg," and, before he could reply, I turned and threaded my way across the auditorium to where most of Major Crime, along with a good showing from the other departments, were sitting.

I didn't try to hear what, if anything, he said to that. I knew he'd repeat himself later. Probably several times, if we got him as tanked as we intended.

The buzz of the crowd rose until it was almost unbearable, but as soon as the cadets started marching down the center aisle, everyone clammed up, watching those kids dressed in blue. Sandburg wasn't a kid, but he blended right in. At least, until you looked at him closely.

The past year hadn't been easy for him. For anyone, really. I rubbed my leg. It still ached on rainy days, or when I got over-tired. Simon and Megan had only recently graduated to full duty status, and Rafe was trying to decide whether or not to keep the scar on his temple. He thought it gave him a 'rakish air,' whatever the hell that was. The rest of us told him he looked like Frankenstein's monster. Sandburg and I had a bet on which way he'd go.

Easy money.

But I'd noticed a few new gray hairs in Sandburg's sideburns, and a bunch of tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that hadn't been there before. And he was quieter, too. Not that he didn't still run at the mouth at times, but he was more... reserved, I guess is the right word. Even when "60 Minutes" called and wanted to interview him for their expose of Sid, he didn't say a lot. Of course, by that point they had enough information to sink Sid's reputation anyway, so he didn't have to say much. It was probably just as well. He's never been the vengeful type.

Me, now, I would have had Sid's balls in public.

It was the usual graduation ceremony. There were too many speeches by guys who liked the sound of their own voices, and too many candy-assed awards, like some kindergarten graduation where everyone gets a medal, even if it's only for being the neatest paste eater.

Not all the awards were bullshit, though. Dave Johnson's daughter, Kristen, got top marks in sharp-shooting. No surprise there, given her old man's talent, and the fact that she'd had a rifle in her hands since she was three. Chuck Shoemaker, this quiet kid that Sandburg liked, walked away with top honors, beating out Donny Petrelli, an arrogant SOB with an attitude big enough to house Fort Knox. We all cheered at that, and I watched Sandburg down on the floor, whooping and hollering the loudest.

I'd wondered if he was up for academic achievement, but trust Sandburg to do the unexpected. He took the award for self-defense. I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I've seen the guy use a fire hose, baseballs, a wrecking crane, and God knows what else to defend himself and take out a perp. Working in the controlled conditions of the Academy must've been a breeze.

When his name was finally called from the roster, Sandburg shot us a look that even a blind man could read. We cheered, Rafe let out a howl or two, and Megan surprised everyone with what she later assured us was 'a perfect imitation of a dingo.' It was worse than nails on a chalkboard. Simon told her that if she did that again, he'd buy a pet carrier, stuff her inside, and ship her back to Oz on the next boat.

I think he was joking.

But that was it. Sandburg collected his badge and certificate, shook hands with all the bigwigs, and sat down again, trying to hide a grin. He knew I was watching him, and he turned his head in my direction.

"Thanks, partner," he mouthed.

"You're welcome," I whispered, my throat suddenly tight and dry.

"I never thought I'd see this day." Simon's voice was quiet and I turned to him.

I coughed. "What? Sandburg turning cop or the Commissioner keeping his remarks under half an hour?"

He shot me a look that I couldn't interpret and turned back to applaud the final cadet. Sandburg was facing the stage again, but his mouth was curled up in a little grin that usually meant trouble. I smiled to myself. Rafe and H had better look out. I didn't know what 'surprise' they had planned for the party, but I could trust Sandburg to figure out a way to turn the tables on them.

I settled back in my seat for the closing remarks. I was going to enjoy this.


I rolled over in bed and took stock of the situation. Apart from a little headache right behind my eyes and a tongue with a fur coat that Zsa Zsa Gabor would have loved, I'd managed to escape from last night's excesses pretty lightly.

Simon, on the other hand...

I smiled, remembering his speech at the party. Who'd have thought Simon Banks could get so maudlin? I'd swear there were tears in his eyes by the time he'd finished, and that coughing fit at the end was just to cover the fact that he'd choked up. Sandburg's hug snapped him out of it fast enough, though, and a good thing, too. He wouldn't want to set a precedent.

Of course, H and Rafe were never going to live down the fact that Sandburg had somehow managed to avoid the rigged chair and trick glass. And I sure as hell was never going to let on who tipped off the stripper to ignore Sandburg and concentrate on Connor.

It had been worth every dime.

I stretched and slid out of bed, sniffing. Coffee. I glanced down over the railing. Sandburg was sitting at the kitchen table, cup of coffee in hand, the paper spread out over the entire surface.

I wasn't expecting him up this early, especially after our late night. Curious, I looked to see what he was reading.

Used car ads.

"Morning," I said as I came down the stairs. "What're you doing up at the crack of dawn?"

He circled something on the newspaper and looked up at me with a grin. "Morning, yourself. I'm going car hunting, and I've got to get an early start before all the bargains are gone."

"Car hunting?" I grabbed a cup of coffee and looked at him. He'd already showered and shaved, and the empty plate by the sink indicated that he'd even had breakfast. Hell, I wasn't a detective for nothing. "What's wrong with the Volvo?"

"Nothing, right now," he said, with a little curl of his lip. "But can you see the suspension holding out after one of your Demolition Derby chases? Not to mention the brakes, and the leaf springs, and the bearings..." He ticked each one off on his fingers.

"My chases?" I glared at him and sat down, looking at all the little ink circles that dotted the page in front of him. "It's not like I start them, you know. And besides, why would I be driving your car in a chase?"

He raised his eyebrows, giving me his look-at-me-I'm-being-so-patient-with-this-idiot look. "Because we agreed that we'd carpool once I'm in the department, and that means that every other day we'll be taking my car."

Oh.

I pursed my lips and looked out the window, picking out the name of a tanker entering the harbor. Tomiko Maru. I wondered what cargo it was carrying. "I didn't think we'd have to... change anything, Chief. We can still use the truck, and you won't have to-"

"Nuh-uh, Jim," he said, standing up and grabbing two envelopes from beside the sofa. "Not an option. I'm not a ride-along any longer. I'm your partner, and that means we'll take my car half the time." He dropped the envelopes in front of me and grabbed the phone.

"What're these for?" I poked at the envelopes.

"My first payment on the back rent I owe you and this month's rent."

I stared at him. His words didn't make any sense.

"What are you talking about?"

He sat down and sighed, being patient again. "Back rent. You know, for the three and a half years you let me stay here. Now that I've got a job that pays better than slave wages, I can afford it. I asked around, and the going rate for a room with house privileges is about two-fifty per month, so, if I add ten percent interest since it was like an unsecured loan, I figured that I owe you eleven thousand five hundred fifty. Here's my first payment of five hundred toward that, and the other envelope's my current rent. I thought you'd rather have two checks to make the accounting easier." He looked down at the first circled ad on the page, and started dialing the phone.

Back rent? With interest?

What the fuck?

"Hello? Are you selling the '98 Explorer?"

He wasn't looking at me, but I picked up the first enveloped and tore it in half, and then in half again. He glanced over at me and his eyes widened as I made confetti out of the envelope and check.

"Yeah, sounds good. I'll try to get by this morning. Okay. Bye."

Before he'd even hit the disconnect button he was reaching out, trying to grab my hands. "Shit, what're you doing that for? Checks aren't free, you know!"

I didn't say anything. Just picked up the other envelope and proceeded to shred that one, too.

Sandburg looked at me, his mouth tight and his eyes narrow. When I finished, he crossed his arms and sat back in his chair.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?"

I looked down at my cup. It was almost empty. "You're the smart one. Figure it out on your own, Sherlock." I got up and poured another cup.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but it wasn't what happened. He laughed. "You are too much, man. I don't know whether to hit you or give you a hug."

I shrugged, but didn't look at him. "Your choice. But 'thanks' will do just fine."

"Thanks, Jim," he said softly.

I took a sip of coffee and turned around. "So, you're looking at Explorers?"

"Yeah. Used ones, a couple of years old. I want something sturdy, but not as big as the Expedition. That thing's turning radius was shit."

"It did okay," I said, looking over the ads he'd circled.

"Hey, you don't have to defend it to me. I liked riding three feet above everyone else." He grinned at me and gave me a quick wink. "You could see all sorts of things from up there."

It was easy to smile back. "Want a second opinion when you go looking?"

"Oh, yeah, that'd be great! Lemme call a few more places while you eat and change, and then we can get moving."

"Sounds good." I got up to put a bagel in the toaster, still grinning. What the hell - I didn't have any plans for today that couldn't be put off. Knowing Sandburg, we'd have a pretty good time.

And I'd make sure he wasn't ripped off.


"What the hell are you doing in there, Sandburg?" I checked my watch and grabbed our jackets. Shit. Look at the time. "Let's get a move on. You can put your makeup on in the truck."

"Makeup? Screw you, Ellison," came the muffled reply, and he barreled out of the bathroom. "You're the one who needs a toupee, not me."

I stared at him as he skidded to a stop in front of me. He looked... different. I narrowed my eyes. Usual clothes. I was used to his hair by now, so it wasn't...

I froze. I'd never seen him wearing a shoulder holster before.

"Well, c'mon," he said impatiently, grabbing his jacket from me and slipping it on as he headed for the door. "I thought you were in a rush."

Shaking off the weirdness, I jerked my head toward the door and shrugged on my coat. "Since Simon appreciates it when we're on time, I thought it might be a good idea to get going. I was just waiting for you, Chief."

"Yeah, yeah, always blame the sidekick," he mumbled as we clattered down the steps. I didn't bother to reply.

When we got to the street, I went right and he went left.

"Over here, Jim," he yelled, pulling out his keys and unlocking the driver's side door. I sighed. He really meant it when he said we were car-pooling, or whatever it is when you're talking about a pickup and an SUV.

I put my own keys back in my pocket, walked over and got in. It felt... weird to be on the passenger side.

"Buckle up." Sandburg's hands were tapping out a little riff on the steering wheel.

"Yes, Mom." I ignored his grin and stared out the windshield, crossing my arms over my chest. Everything was changing.

I didn't like it.

He drove well, checking out the play in the steering and the brakes when there wasn't much traffic, getting used to the feel of his new car. It was a good deal - no bargain, but then again, I don't believe in bargains. They always reach around and bite you in the ass when you least expect it. So Sandburg paid a little more for this one, but it was sound; the engine ran well, the body was in good shape.

But...

"Trust you to choose a red one, Chief."

He sighed. "It's not red, Jim. It's burgundy, or claret, or something rich and wine-like."

I snorted.

"Hey, I like the color. I know that you think all cars should be blue, but some of us like to live on the edge."

"I suppose it could have been worse," I admitted with a shrug. "You could've bought a mini-van."

"Aw, fuck you." He grinned as he turned into the PD parking garage and pulled into a space next to Connor's Jetta. I frowned. We always parked over in the corner, next to Simon's Mercury Sable. "And didn't you recommend this one over the blue one, Mr. Don't-Buy-This-Piece-of-Crap-Chief-The-Fuel-Injection's-Going?"

I got out from the wrong side of the car, and stood in the wrong place in the garage. "That was different. I could hear the damn lines clogging up."

"Right." He locked the car and gave it a little pat before coming around to where I was standing. "I suppose I should name it."

I rolled my eyes and tapped the side of his head as we started toward the elevators. "Only you, Chief, would name your car."

"Well, it's an Explorer. Maybe I should call it Richard. Or Burton." He blinked innocently at me.

I shook my head. "Like I said, only you."

He snorted. "You're just jealous, 'cause I get to use interesting names. Your truck, on the other hand..." He shrugged, his lips twitching. "Well, we could call it Jethro. Or Andy."

"Just try it, and see how long you live, Barney."

He laughed and nudged my arm, and I couldn't hide my grin.

Looking back, the whole day was like that.

Our routine changed. We had a different office arrangement, with Sandburg's new desk shoved against mine, his computer cables lapping over the corner, his inbox nudging my photos. I pushed the cables under the desktop first thing, and shoved his inbox back a fraction. He put the engraved nameplate that the department had given him on the edge of the desk, and leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head, his eyes bright.

"What's first on the agenda, pardner?" he said in that god-awful accent he keeps trying to tell me is a Texas lilt. I'm not a fool. Nobody on "Dallas" ever sounded like that.

"SOS, Sandburg." I tossed a bunch of files onto his desk. "We've gotta get statements for the Lee Chen investigation, track down Billy King, that little shit, and find out what he's heard about the latest delivery. Simon's waiting for the report on the Jackson Heights job to be finished and handed over to the Feds..."

He dropped his hands onto the desk and let his chair fall forward. "I could start with the statements, and while I'm out there, keep an ear open about Billy."

I raised my eyebrows as I retrieved my pencil mug and stapler from the corner of his desk. Sandburg, going off on his own? I didn't think so.

"And what would I be doing while you're out there, all on your lonesome, Tonto?"

He raised his chin and pursed his lips. He looked annoyed. "Finishing the Jackson Heights report. I can't do it," he continued, "because I wasn't involved in the investigation. I know Billy King, and I know enough about the Lee Chen case to take the statements."

"There's no way I'm gonna let you tool around on your own," I snapped, opening the drawer with a bang. "New car or no new car."

He stood up. "In case it escaped your notice, Detective," he said, taking out his badge and displaying it in my direction, "I've got the credentials. I've also got the experience, and before you say that it's different now," he plowed ahead, his voice raised, "this is my job, too, and I finally get a say in the way things are done here."

"Sandburg, hold on," I began, raising my hands.

"And since I drove in this morning, I have the car keys." He grabbed his coat and walked out the door.

I blinked and closed my mouth, turning back to the bullpen. Rafe was grinning at me, but his grin disappeared when I slammed the drawer shut and glared at him.

No, I didn't like these changes at all.


I glanced at my watch again. One thirty, and Sandburg still hadn't checked in.

I wanted to kill him. Or lock him up out of harm's way.

Sure, I'd tried to call him. Three or four times. Okay, maybe a dozen. And received the same message each and every time: "Hi, this is Blair Sandburg. <chuckle> I can't come to the phone right now, but leave your name and number and I'll get back to you." The little shit had probably forgotten to turn his phone on when he left. I thought about leaving a message. I'd actually composed a couple in my head, but when it came down to actually speaking after the beep, I just hung up instead.

The printer spat out the last page of the Jackson Heights report, and I rubbed my eyes and stretched. It was finally done. It had probably taken me three times longer than usual, because I was worried about Sandburg. My partner. My stubborn, pig-headed partner.

I shuffled the pages together, put them in the folder and stifled a groan when I stood. Gettin' old, Ellison. Good thing Sandburg wasn't here to bear witness. I'd never hear the end of it.

I knocked on Simon's door, pushing it open when he barked an invitation. "Got the report you wanted, Captain," I said, handing it to him.

He leafed through the pages quickly and nodded. "Good. I can finally get those Fibby bastards off my ass." He looked at me and his eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "Where's your shadow?"

"Out taking statements," I said woodenly. "For the Lee Chen case."

"You let him out, or did he slip his leash?" For some reason, Simon sounded amused.

I didn't answer.

He looked at me for a second, then poured a cup of coffee and gestured to a chair. I sat down, surprised, and took the coffee that he handed me.

"Daryl's choosing colleges," he began, propping his hip on the edge of his desk. "He's going for visits and interviews, and when I asked if he wanted me to go with him, he told me that he was old enough to make up his own mind."

I raised a hand before he could continue. "I get it, sir. You don't have to continue." I held the cup in both hands, enjoying the warmth. Steam rose in thin, swirling tendrils and I could feel the oily droplets clinging to my face.

"Do you?"

I shot him a glance. He was eyeing me thoughtfully.

I took at deep breath, almost choking on the sudden overwhelming smell of coffee. "Yes, sir. It's just... Sandburg out there on his own..." I shrugged and took a sip. The damn stuff scalded my tongue.

"Everyone's got to take responsibility for their own actions, Jim."

"Yeah." I put the cup down and stood, not quite at ease, but close enough. "Anything else, sir?"

"Not at the moment, no." He moved behind his desk and picked up my report. "Dismissed."

I went back to my desk, cursing Sandburg. We needed to find Billy King, and Sandburg had taken the car, and he hadn't bothered to check in. I decided to make a few phone calls first, and then, if my jerk of a partner still wasn't back, I'd get a car from the motor pool and go out myself.

I'd just finished the second call when my cell phone rang.

"Ellison."

"Hey, Jim. How's it going?" Sandburg sounded pretty chipper.

"You calling from a pay phone?"

"Why would I-" He chuckled uneasily and I could hear him shift the phone to his other ear. "Oh, yeah. I forgot to turn on my cell when I left. Sorry."

"Sorry?" Three or four heads raised and looked at me, so I lowered my voice. "Sorry? You've been out of touch for..." I checked my watch. "For over five hours, and all you can say is sorry?"

"Were you worried?" He sounded curious.

"I wasn't-" My voice cut out. I had been worried. Still was, in fact. "Yes."

I heard him heave a sigh. "You know how it is. I got busy and forgot the time."

"Sandburg..." I glared at the faces staring at me.

"But I got some excellent statements, Jim," he interrupted. "And a solid lead on Billy King. That's why I'm calling. I'll be in front of the station in ten minutes. I'll pick you up and we can go see him together."

"Sandburg..." I tried again, but he'd already hung up.

I grabbed my coat and headed down to the street.

He was there in eight minutes, and I got in the car, managing not to slam the door after me.

"Petey Driscoll says that Billy's holed up with his sister over in Bridgeport," he said as I buckled my seatbelt. He sounded apologetic.

I stared at him. "You went and saw Driscoll on your own?"

He didn't look at me - just flipped on the signal and turned onto Broad. "Yeah."

"Got a death wish, Chief?" I thought I said it pretty calmly, but he shot me a glance before returning his gaze out the windshield.

"Not really. Been there, done that." His voice was very dry.

Damn.

I swallowed and turned away, the buildings blurring as they flashed past. It took a minute before I could trust my voice to continue. "What'd he ask for in exchange for the info?"

"Not much. A little consideration next time he's having some... legal difficulties. I didn't promise anything, though."

"Okay."

We were silent until we entered Bridgeport.

"You think Billy will run?" he asked as he pulled up to the curb outside the block of apartments where Raelene King lived.

"Nah." But I checked my gun as I got out and waited for him to join me.

"You sure? Maybe I should go around back." He eyed the apartment building warily.

"Not necessary." I started toward the front door. "I know Billy, and he's not going to run."

"All the same..." He hesitated by the car.

I sighed. "You think he's going to go on the lam, Elliott?" I turned away and waved my hand at him. "Knock yourself out."

"Fine," he snapped.

What the fuck was Sandburg thinking? Billy King was a coward, first and foremost. No way was he going to run. Hell, I'd probably have to question him in the can, because he'd be shitting in his pants when I showed up. I took the stairs up to the third floor and knocked on the door. "Raelene?"

I was right. Billy didn't run. In fact, he couldn't run. He'd sprained his ankle and was sprawled on the couch, with an ice pack on his foot. I thought about calling Sandburg and inviting him up, but that would look like I was gloating.

I would have done it anyway, but Billy was blabbing so fast I didn't want to interrupt the flow.

It only took ten minutes to get everything I wanted from him. I wish all my informants were as cooperative, or at least as immobile. Before I left, Raelene offered me coffee, but I turned her down. After all, Sandburg was waiting for me.

He was sitting on a brick wall outside the back door, kicking his heels and whistling softly as he watched a bunch of kids playing kickball in the playground.

"Good thing you were on the job," I said as he slid off the wall and dusted his seat.

He shrugged and looked a little sheepish. "It was a long shot, but I figured, just in case..."

I squinted up at the sun, hidden for a minute behind a cloud. The edges of the cloud shimmered in thousands of tiny rainbows, with colors so sharp they made my eyes water.

"Nah, you were right. You never know what can happen." I nudged his shoulder. "Good job, Chief."

The corners of his mouth twitched, but he didn't say anything. Just rocked back on his heels like he does when he's pleased.

"Did you get what you wanted?"

"Yeah." I grinned at him. "He'd sprained his ankle and the pain must've affected his mouth. He couldn't keep it shut."

Chuckling, he tapped my arm and jerked his head toward the street. "Let's go. Wait'll you see the statements I got this morning."

We started toward the car. "Good, huh?"

"Let's say they're... interesting."

I raised an eyebrow. "Interesting, eh?"

"Yeah." He just grinned at me, though, and wouldn't say any more.


As soon as we got back to the station that afternoon we were called out again, and Sandburg didn't get the time to type up his notes until Tuesday morning. He handed the pages to me with a grin.

I blinked and put down the last page of the statements. "Harry said that?"

Sandburg grinned at me. "Yep."

"I'll be damned," I muttered, shaking my head.

"I got a list of Lee's warehouses, and I thought I'd follow it up today-"

"You?" I leaned forward and glared at him. "Listen, Chief. It's one thing to get statements and even to go see Pete Driscoll on your own, but if Harry's right, it could be very dangerous-"

"You'd go on your own," he said, folding his arms across his chest and returning my glare.

"That's not the point."

"Then what is the point?" He put his hands flat on the desk and leaned across it. "Listen, Jim, give me some credit. I'm not a novice. I realize that it could be dangerous, and I'm not going to do something stupid."

"You sure?"

"Aw, fuck you, man." He kicked his chair back and got up. "So are you coming?"

I looked at him for a second. Sandburg was angry. Really angry. Good.

"Yeah." I got up and grabbed our coats. Sandburg snatched his out of my hands.

"Let's go, then."

I'd driven in that morning, so he had to wait for me to unlock the truck door before he jumped in and slammed it shut. I took my time getting in and starting the engine, while he jiggled and jittered on the passenger side, but I was as anxious as Sandburg was to follow up the lead that Harry Wong had inadvertently dropped, so I peeled out of the garage with a squeal of tires.

He snorted.

I glanced at him. The little shit was grinning. "What?"

"You want this, man. You want it so bad you can taste it."

I shrugged. "Of course I want it. Lee's been smuggling in arms shipments for too fucking long. I want to shut him down yesterday."

"Yeah." Sandburg's voice held a note of satisfaction. "And now we've got a chance to take him to the cleaners."

"If Harry's right, and if we get lucky."

"You are such a pessimist." He beat a rapid drum riff on his thighs. "This is going to work - I can feel it."

"You can feel it? Who are you channeling now?" I asked. "Shirley MacLaine?" He pursed his lips and looked out the side window, ignoring me. "Besides, I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist."

"You're a real-" His mouth snapped shut.

"What?"

"Nothing."

We were silent until we got to the warehouse district, down by the docks. "What's the first address?" I asked, and he scrabbled in his pockets until he found a crumpled piece of paper.

"1347 Bayside. And don't park too close."

"I wasn't going to."

I parked a block away and we got out. It was surprisingly busy. A fleet of delivery trucks was being loaded at a building across the street, and there was some sort of informal farmer's market set up in a vacant lot beside Lee's warehouse. It looked like half the elderly Asian ladies of Cascade were doing their produce shopping at the little stalls made up of planks and wooden boxes. A couple of vendors had even erected striped awnings and put up homemade signs.

"In the mood for some stir-fry tonight?" Sandburg grinned and looked longingly at the food. I have to admit, it did look good - a damn sight fresher than the stuff we got from our local grocery.

"We're on the job, Chief." I took his arm and steered him away from the bustle. "You gonna explain to Simon that we just happened to be chasing a perp through the market and we got lobbed with a nice bok choi?"

"Think he'd buy it?" He gave me a nudge and I released his arm. "But we're running low on fresh stuff, so unless you want to drop by the Stop 'n' Save tonight you'll be stuck eating canned peas for dinner. Besides, it'll only take a minute."

It was the thought of the canned peas that tipped the balance. "We'll see."

Sandburg grinned at me. Damn him, he knew he'd won.

We passed by Lee's building and I inhaled deeply, trying to get a whiff of anything that would give us an indication where the current shipment was stashed. I gagged a little and then sneezed twice as we continued across the street.

"Bless you." Sandburg had his hand on my shoulder, his fingers moving gently. "You okay?"

"Yeah." I rubbed my nose. It tingled like it always did when I focused on smell. "Something died recently, maybe a rat."

He grimaced in sympathy. "How about the shipment?"

"Nothing much, maybe some cordite, but it's very faint."

"Let's try the other side and then go on to the next one."

We continued down the block and stopped for a couple of minutes at Joe's Record Paradise - the best place in the planet to look for old vinyl albums - and then went around the block and doubled back. As we passed the other side of the warehouse, I gave it the same treatment.

"No." I shook my head. "Nothing."

Sandburg shrugged. "Okay. Give me five minutes and then we'll be on our way."

It took fifteen, but Sandburg returned to the Explorer looking very pleased with himself, lugging some of the best looking vegetables I'd ever seen.

Hey, if vegetables made my partner happy, then he could have vegetables.

The second warehouse was a repeat of the first, except that in exchange for the dead rat, I got a nose full of urine and puke, courtesy of the patrons of a bar around the corner, who used the alley as their own personal pissoir. With, as Sandburg said, emphasis on the 'piss.'

We hit paydirt at the third warehouse. I didn't even have to walk past it - we were around back, hugging the wall near the delivery bays, when I sniffed and grabbed Sandburg's shoulder.

"Bingo."

"What do you smell?" His eyes lit up as he turned to face me.

I sniffed again. "Gun oil and straw. They're probably packed in crates filled with straw."

"Beautiful," he muttered, and dialed his phone. "Captain? Sandburg here. We need to set up surveillance on a warehouse at-"

I stood there as he spoke to Simon, handling all the details without asking for my opinion or anything. Not that I would have had anything to add, but it would have been nice. Would have made me feel less of a fifth wheel.

We hung around for a couple of hours, hidden from view behind a wall in a small, disused parking lot, drinking tasteless coffee from the lunchroom around the corner, until the first team was set up in an empty office in the building across the street. Sandburg was on the phone most of the time, trying to get a hint about who the buyer could be. I was busy, too - after all, most informants only like to deal with one person - but nothing about possible buyers was floating out on the street.

Blair was talking to Simon again when he suddenly grimaced, covered the mouthpiece, and muttered "shit." I hung up and turned to him. "No, sir, I didn't say anything." He rolled his eyes at me and I tuned into the conversation.

"...know this is your operation," Simon was saying, "but you will cooperate with the ATF and..."

I tuned out again and gave Sandburg a shrug and my best Maurice Chevalier who-gives-a-shit expression. He grinned.

"Yes, sir. Of course we will. Absolutely, sir. Goodbye."

He punched the disconnect button and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes.

"Hey, Chief, you might want to wipe your nose." I ran my finger lightly down the length.

His eyes flew open and he rubbed at the tip, looking cross-eyed down at it.

"What is it? Dirt?" he sighed.

"Nah. Just some brown where you were kissing Simon's-"

"Asshole." He glared at me and punched my arm.

"Exactly." I rubbed my arm - the guy packs quite a punch - and then ducked when he tried it again.

"Like you should talk. I've seen you shove your lips so far up Simon's butt that-"

"Oh, thanks for the picture," I said, laughing and holding up my hands. "So, what's next?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"Because this is your operation, Chief." It felt strange saying that. Sandburg's operation. Not Ellison's operation. Or even Sandburg and Ellison's operation. I looked down at the cracked and crumbling pavement. Weeds were growing up through the cracks, making them bigger. A line of ants headed straight for a lonely French fry that had landed on the sidewalk. They waved their antennae like cheerleaders pepping up the crowd. "You broke it, you call the shots."

He stared at me for a minute, all wide eyes and open mouth. "Thanks, Jim." His voice was as soft as silk.

I shrugged. "So, what's next?"

He nodded firmly. "As soon as we get word the surveillance is in place, I need to talk face to face with a couple of snitches. They said they didn't know anything about the shipment, but a lot of these guys don't trust the phone. And Raul Gutierrez sounded nervous, like he knows something." He gave me a sidelong glance. "I think we should go talk to Raul."

"Sounds good. And then-" I shut my mouth quickly. This was Sandburg's operation, his first one. A successful outcome could finally shut up those - admittedly fewer than before - voices that kept bringing up the past, saying things like "there's no smoke without a fire," and other stupid clichs. It could set the tone for the rest of his career, and confirm that he'd made the right decision in going to the Academy and... And yeah, staying with me. In short, it was damned important. He knew it, and I knew it. And rule number one in a situation like this is that you don't offer advice unless it's asked for.

"And then?"

"Never mind." I turned toward the street. "How long-"

He grabbed my arm and tugged. "Listen, it may be my operation, but I can use all the help I can get. What were you going to say?"

"Maybe Harry knows more than he let on," I said quietly, pleased by his insistence. "We should talk to him again, too."

"See?" He nodded, giving my arm a squeeze. "That's exactly what I'm saying. I forgot about Harry." He shook my arm once and then let it go. "If I forget something, or if you think I'm doing something wrong, let me know, okay? I mean," he gave me a nervous grin, "I've got a lot of experience, more than the other graduates, but that doesn't mean I'm perfect. So tell me."

"Sure."

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.


I was wrong. It was worse.

It wasn't that Sandburg didn't listen to my suggestions; he did, and even thanked me for most of them. It wasn't that Sandburg was working well with Chuck Grissom, the ATF agent, even though Grissom and I pretty much hated each other's guts from the second we met. It wasn't even that Simon would yell "Sandburg, my office," and then pause before adding "you, too, Ellison," almost as an afterthought.

Well, maybe it was a little of each, plus a dose of frustration because two of my other cases had to be put on ice while this one took precedence. Not that bringing down Lee Chen wasn't important; it was. But...

But, hell. I was worried that something would screw up. Like me, maybe. Like I'd done before. I was worried that the information we'd received wasn't correct, or that the ATF guys would try to grab Sandburg's authority, or... The list was endless.

And I was jealous of Sandburg's competence, the way he got everyone to agree with him, and the fact that he didn't really need me except as a secretary, reminding him of details that got lost in the shuffle.

What a fuckin' selfish way to feel.

Some friend, right?

So I bit my tongue and let him run the show.

When we pulled Harry in, he decided that talking was a bad idea, so we had to let him go without learning anything new. But Raul Gutierrez came through. He'd heard that Lee's shipment was destined for the IRA, and that the weapons would be trucked out of the warehouse Friday afternoon for a rendezvous with the buyers. But he didn't know exactly who, and he didn't know exactly where.

It took us until Thursday to come up with the name Seamus Powers, and Grissom swore when he heard it.

"Fucking nut-case," he explained as we sat around the conference table in Simon's office, nursing our cups of lukewarm coffee. "He's one of the hard-liners, won't even consider a temporary ceasefire. Just wants to kill as many people as he can."

Sandburg's face paled, but he set his jaw and nodded. "Which would include any American cops trying to prevent his deal from going through."

"Yeah." Grissom looked disgusted. "Though he'll go for my guys, first. We've had a couple of run-ins, and he hates the ATF almost as much as he hates the British."

"Great." Simon leaned back and shook his head, chewing on his cigar. "Just great. So, what's the plan, Sandburg?"

He glanced at me, a flash of blue eyes, and then turned to his notes. His voice was firm. "Agent Grissom and I have pooled our information, sketchy as it is, and we've identified several possible exchange locations," he said, pushing a map to the center of the table, jabbing it with his finger, "but we have no way of knowing where they'll go. We probably won't be able to plant a trace on their vehicle, so we'll have to tail them."

"Discreetly," Grissom added grimly.

"Very discreetly," Sandburg agreed. He looked at me and the corners of his mouth turned up a fraction. "But I don't think that'll be a problem."

I pressed my lips together to stop from grinning back at him. "Nah, I don't think so."

Grissom looked puzzled, and Simon shrugged and raised his eyebrows. "Don't worry about it, Agent Grissom. If Detective Sandburg says there won't be a problem, there won't be a problem."

I crossed my fingers under the table. For Sandburg's sake, as well as my own, I hoped not.


Sandburg was right; we weren't able to plant a trace on Lee's truck. So we had a convoy of six cars and vans parked three blocks away, waiting to trail after them.

"Standby." Rafe's voice was quiet.

I nodded to Sandburg and shifted the phone to my other ear. Connor sat behind us, the stiff paper of the maps on her lap crinkling softly as she fidgeted. Somehow Sandburg had convinced Grissom to let us handle the tail, and to follow us in a separate car. Since Sandburg couldn't drive and check the maps and relay directions all at once, and since Connor already knew what I could do, she was navigator. She had initially insisted on driving, but Sandburg put a stop to that with two words: parking lot. She had given him an indignant look, but I noticed that she didn't argue. I'd have to remember that. The three of us were the vanguard of this little expedition, and I took a deep breath.

"You ready, Jim?" Sandburg asked, his hands beating a steady tattoo on the wheel. Nerves. We were all nervous.

"Yeah."

"Liftoff," said Rafe. "We have a go."

"See you at the hand-off," I said, then disconnected. "They're on the move, Chief." I handed the phone to Connor and looked out the windshield as Sandburg started the car. In a minute or two, Lee's truck and escorts would pass, and then it would be up to me not to lose them until they arrived at their rendezvous.

"Sight and sound," murmured Sandburg, spotting the truck and pulling out. "Keep 'em linked, but don't get overwhelmed."

"Yeah..." I suddenly felt like my handler had just buckled on my collar, waved a nice smelly sock under my nose and ordered me to follow the scent, while I was wagging my tail and panting in excitement, wanting to please him. Shit. Where the hell did that come from? I knew, though. I took a deep breath and pushed the thought away. I could see the truck easily and reached out with my hearing, getting familiar with the sound of the engine, and the tense voices of the men inside. I could hear Connor's voice in the background, speaking to Grissom, but ignored it and kept my focus on the truck in front of us.

Tailing them wasn't too difficult in the city. We had plenty of traffic to hide in, and whoever was driving the truck was being damned careful; he signaled every turn and stayed right on the speed limit. The escort cars followed the truck like ducklings trailing after their mother. No problems, there.

They were traveling west, toward the water, and Connor and Sandburg exchanged whispered guesses about the rendezvous location.

It was more difficult when we got outside the city. They chose secondary roads, not highways, so we had to stay well back. I frequently lost sight of them, but never lost the sound of their engine, or those cold voices.

We rounded a corner and came over a steep rise. "Left," I said, "and slow down a little. We're gaining on them."

"Got it," Sandburg muttered, sounding unhappy. "Connor?"

"They're still heading west, on... Island Crossing Road." She relayed the information to Grissom, who greeted the news with a curse.

I didn't like Grissom, but I had to agree with the sentiment. It looked like they were heading for the one place we didn't want them to go. The next turn-off clinched it.

"Right, onto a gravel road. Looks like you called it, Chief."

"Fuck."

"Yeah."

Connor relayed the information, and Grissom's comments became more imaginative.

Sandburg took a deep breath and let it out in an explosive rush. "Right. Let me talk with him." He held out his hand and Connor gave him the phone. "How long do your boats need to reach this location, Agent Grissom? Don't worry. We'll be in place by the time we're wanted. Don't worry about how he'll handle it. No. No! I'm not using my men as bait, and you can forget that idea right now. I don't know. Ask Connor." He threw the phone back to her and turned, hitting the gas and making gravel spray as the car lurched.

I could hear what he was muttering under his breath, but didn't answer. A guy has to let off steam somehow, and right now, Sandburg looked pretty steamed.

It didn't last long. "I don't like it," he said, without looking at me.

"I know. Do we have another option?"

"No," he snapped.

We reached the cut-off after a mile, and Sandburg carefully turned down the rutted track, hemmed in by thick stands of trees.

"Shit!" The car bottomed out for the third time and he white-knuckled the wheel. "I knew I should've insisted on bringing Burton, instead of this piece of shit."

"Burton?" Connor bit off a screech as the car lurched over a rock.

"His new baby," I said, gritting my teeth as we jolted and I hit the door.

"His new... Oh! The Explorer." Her laugh was cut short as she bounced. "Nice one, Sandy."

We reached the end of the track after another couple of minutes, and my kidneys were grateful. There was barely room for the car to turn, but Sandburg insisted on parking it heading out, before the others arrived. We were hauling the equipment out of the trunk when two other cars pulled up, and our guys got out.

Sandburg explained what we were to do, and then asked for questions.

"He'll be completely exposed," said H, frowning.

"I know." Sandburg nodded. A tiny muscle at the corner of his eye twitched and his mouth was set in a hard line. It took me a minute, but I recognized the expression. I'd seen it reflected in enough windows.

I'd just never seen it on his face before.

"But there's no way around it," he continued. "Grissom and his team can get closer, but they won't be able to see anything from their position until they're practically on top of the deal. Jim will have to be their eyes and ears until they're ready to take 'em down."

None of the guys asked how I was going to manage binoculars and a directional mike while hanging onto a rope. I wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing, but at least Sandburg didn't have to go into a cock-and-bull story about some new technology that the ATF was loaning us for the op.

"Ready?"

I nodded. "Let's go. It's going to take me a while to get in position."

Actually, it didn't take more than twenty minutes for me to put on my vest and harness and pick my way out onto the rocks, climbing around the jagged shale outcroppings that prevented anyone from overlooking the little inlet and dock below. Because of the lay the land, I was the only one who'd be able to see what was going on. Grissom's team would be approaching from the trees on the other side of the inlet, but rocks cut off their view as well, and they'd be approaching blind, with only my directions as a guide.

I heard a boat approach as I inched my way around a tall rock pillar. There was a little ledge that gave me a toe-hold, but it was slick with rock fragments and bird shit.

"Okay, Jim, can you hear me?" Sandburg's voice was tinny over the headset. I could hear him without the headset as well, which set up a weird echo effect. I wished there was some way to turn down the volume.

"Yeah." I grunted as I squeezed through a narrow cleft and teetered, balancing on one foot as I scrabbled for hand-holds.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." I was sweating under the vest and my fingers ached as I searched for purchase. "Just tell the guys to hold on tight."

"Don't worry. Joel's tied the end around a boulder." I could hear the laughter in Sandburg's voice.

I snorted. "Great." The sound of the engine grew and I craned my neck. A boat was coming in, and there were five guys standing on the dock, waiting. The middle one I recognized as Lee Chen. The other four had sub-machine guns.

Just great.

"I hope Grissom and his team are in place," I said into the mike. "The boat's about ten yards from the dock, and there's an armed reception committee waiting."

I could hear Sandburg talking in the background as I continued to edge around the rocks. There wasn't any place I could hang on to for long until I reached the outer face of the rocks, and there wasn't a scrap of cover out there. Shit. I could only hope that neither Lee nor Powers counted on anyone being up here with the pigeons, and that their guards didn't, either.

The boat finally made it to the dock and moored, but only with the bowline. I guess Powers was feeling cautious and wanted to be able to leave quickly. Three men scrambled from the boat onto the dock, and one of them was carrying a briefcase. I described them to Sandburg, and he relayed the descriptions to Grissom.

"Sounds like Powers and his two flunkeys," Sandburg said. "Grissom's nearly in place."

"Good."

Powers and Lee spoke for a moment - just saying hello. Then Powers jerked his shoulder toward the case.

"Open it, Tommy."

Tommy snapped it open and displayed the contents to Lee. I whistled under my breath. There was probably half a million dollars there. Lee nodded, and gestured to the goons on the dock. They walked over to the truck, parked at the end of the dock, and opened the back.

Powers let out a high-pitched whistle, and half-a-dozen guys appeared on the deck of the boat, jumping onto the dock at his gesture. They jogged toward the truck.

My head jerked around at the sharp crack that came from the other side of the beach and I teetered for a second, off-balance. There was a pause while the sound echoed around the inlet, fading quickly, and I steadied myself against the rocks. Then all hell broke loose.

"Are you okay, Jim?" I could hear the babble of voices behind him, but he sounded calm. He was breathing hard, though, like he was worried.

The guards on the dock had separated - two were running toward the low rocks and trees where Grissom's people were hiding, and two were hustling Lee into the truck and closing the doors behind him. They moved toward the trees, joining the others. Powers and his men took off for the boat, and were scrambling on board as the engines roared into life.

"Yeah. One of Grissom's idiots sent off a shot." I quickly described what I could see. "The guards are coming over the rocks - tell Grissom to watch it!"

"Got it." I could hear Sandburg relaying the warning, and there was a burst of gunfire from the trees. I watched the boat pull away from the dock.

Shit.

More gunfire. The truck lurched forward, heading back up the road. "Lee's leaving. Get someone out there to stop him." I didn't care if it sounded like an order or not.

I couldn't see much. The rocks hid the battle in the trees from me, but I could hear Grissom shouting to his team, and an occasional order in Korean from Lee's men. I didn't dare focus too much on my hearing, though, because the intermittent gunfire threatened to blow my eardrums if I wasn't careful. But I relayed as much as I could to Sandburg, watching for any sign that Grissom was winning.

I heard another crack, and the rock beside my face suddenly shattered, pelting me with pebbles and sharp fragments.

Fuckfuckfuck.

I jerked back, losing my grip as another round chewed up the stones beside my legs. Somehow I found another hand-hold and kept from falling forward. I wouldn't have a chance if I fell - they'd cut me to pieces as I dangled on the end of the rope, before Sandburg and the guys could haul me back up.

Another round, this one above me. I winced as a couple of good-sized stones hit my head and my right shoulder, and hoped to hell that I hadn't broken my collarbone. I kept moving, trying to get back around in the cover of the rocks as soon as possible. Their aim was off - I could see the two gunmen in the prow of the boat - and I thanked God for choppy seas.

Sandburg was saying something, but I ignored him, concentrating on getting the hell out of there. The next round was too damn close, and covered me with sharp fragments, biting into my legs and arms and face. I blinked hard, clearing my eyes of dust, and smelled blood.

There was more firing from the trees, but it had slowed down, and to be perfectly frank, I wasn't paying much attention. I had enough to worry about trying to get my ass under some cover.

I was almost around the corner and out of their direct line of fire when I heard a shout and the rocks beside me seemed to explode. I jumped for cover, reaching for two decent hand-holds on either side of the cleft I'd squeezed through earlier. I grabbed them as I landed hard against the pillar, one of my hands slipped, and I searched around for a toe-hold as my arm felt like it was being jerked from the socket.

The rope tightened, pulling me up enough that I could find a small chink for my toes and take some of the pressure off my arm. After I caught my breath, I scrambled through the cleft and started around the pillar. As I reached around the rock, a hand suddenly clasped mine.

"Gotcha."

I sagged a little in relief. "Jesus, Chief. Give a guy a little warning before you sneak up on him." His chilly fingers tightened on mine, and he guided me back around the pillar.

He stepped onto a nice flat boulder and turned to me, his eyes widening.

"Are you hit?" He dropped my hand and began tugging on the harness straps.

"Don't think so," I said, wiping my mouth. There was blood on the back of my hand. I batted away his hands and started back to where Joel was sitting, trying to talk into a phone and a radio transmitter at the same time. My knees felt shaky, and if I collapsed, I wanted to end up on the grass and not the fucking rocks. "What's going on?"

Joel looked up and frowned at me. "Grissom's got three of the guards, and is tracking the fourth. Connor, Rafe and H went to intercept Lee. The ATF boat has sighted Powers', and will pick him up. And Sandburg and I have been trying to get you back here in one piece."

I stumbled, and Sandburg's hand gripped my arm and steadied me.


It was after midnight by the time we got home. Sandburg had wanted to take me to the ER, but I talked him out of it. My head ached, and I had bruises and cuts, but no serious damage. I felt better once I'd showered and changed into some sweats I'd left at the station.

Correction. I felt better physically. But I was worried about Sandburg. He insisted on driving back home, and I was too tired to argue, so I handed him the keys and he took them without a word. No jokes, no smart-alec comments, nothing.

The damned thing was, I knew why.

I don't think we said two words the entire trip. We got into the elevator and he leaned against the back wall, his arms crossed over his chest, and closed his eyes. His jaw was tight, his lips were pressed together, and there were lines of tension around his eyes.

When the doors opened, he pushed himself off the wall with a sigh and walked slowly down the hall. I opened the door and hung up my coat, then snagged his and hung it up as well.

"Beer?" I wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge, then closed it. "Something to eat?"

"Nah." He collapsed on the couch and closed his eyes again. I looked at him for a minute, then went into the bathroom. It didn't take me long to wash my face, brush my teeth and take a leak.

He hadn't moved when I came out, and I hesitated for a second before turning toward the stairs.

"I'm going to bed. I'll see you-"

"Does it get any easier?"

I stopped, a little startled at his question, but not surprised. I didn't have to ask what 'it' was, but I wished I could lie.

"No."

He signed and rubbed his face with his hands. "I was afraid of that."

I swallowed and hitched my hip up on the table. "It's just part of the job." It was suddenly hard to talk, and I shrugged and rubbed my knee. The cotton knit of my sweatpants was soft under my fingers and smelled of detergent. "You do it if the job's important to you."

"Yeah." He opened his eyes and leaned forward, grunting, elbows on knees, clasping his hands and staring at the coffee table. "How did you feel the first time you had to send one of your men out to do something that might mean his death?"

"Like shit."

He snorted and glanced at me. "Tell me about it."

"I'm okay, Chief." I got up and walked around the couch, sitting down next to him. "You did what you needed to do. It was the only option we had."

He opened his mouth and then closed it, chewing on his lip. Glancing at me again, he rubbed his hands down his thighs. "It's a lot of responsibility."

"Yeah." I saw where this was going and looked away, out the window, past the reflections of the room. Warehouses. Cranes. Containers. Ships. I wondered if the Tomiko Maru had sailed yet. "Not everyone can deal with it. There's no shame in realizing that-"

"Don't be an ass." His voice was harsh, and he chuckled drily. "After going through all that shit to get through the Academy, I'm not chucking in the job."

"Oh. Okay." I glanced back at him and froze. There was something... new in his expression. Something I hadn't seen before. I didn't quite...

"Jim?" His voice shook a little but his eyes were steady. Steady and dark and I could see...

"Chief?"

He had one hand on my shoulder, rubbing gently.

"I can take the responsibility. Except that it's going to be tough..." His eyes dipped and raised. "When it's you."

Somehow my hand was cupping his face, my thumb running over his cheek and lips. "Ditto." My voice was rough, and I sounded like one of the drunks down on Twenty-third. The contrast between the prickles of his way-the-hell-after-five-o'clock shadow and the dry smoothness of his lips was interesting. So interesting that I was having trouble breathing.

He turned his face, his stubble tickling my palm, making me shiver, and pressed his lips to a scrape on my thumb. "Sorry," he murmured, and proceeded to kiss all the cuts on my hand, apologizing to each one. By the time he started up my arm, I was shaking.

"Blair," I whispered.

He looked up at me, his eyes dark and searching, a little crease between his eyebrows. "Don't tell me I'm alone in this, Jim."

Alone?

I almost laughed at the irony.

"Nah." I pulled his face up to mine. "You're not alone in this."

He said something as our mouths met, but I didn't understand it, and I was damned if I was going to stop what we were doing to find out. Sandburg kisses like he lectures - hard and fast, slipping in knowledge until your head spins. By the time we broke apart, I'd been slipped so much knowledge I felt like Einstein, and we were practically sitting in each other's laps.

I leaned my forehead against his and closed my eyes. My chest hurt, aching deep inside. I knew that feeling. It had happened once or twice before. But never so strong, never so painful.

He chuckled. "You're asleep on your feet. Go to bed. We'll talk about this in-"

I put a finger over his lips. "Sandburg, shut up." And then I replaced the finger with my mouth.

When we surfaced again, I was on my back and he was resting on my chest. I was panting so hard it probably wasn't very comfortable, but it didn't look like he was moving any time soon, so I ran my hands over his back and down his arms, enjoying the feel of him shifting against me.

"Jim?" He squirmed around and kissed my throat.

"Yeah?" I held him closer.

He snickered quietly and rubbed my arms. "I don't want to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I think the score is Spirit: 2, Flesh: 0. If I don't get to bed soon, I'm going comatose."

I laughed and kissed his temple. "Ditto." I hesitated for a minute, my arms holding him tight. "We could both go comatose in my bed, if you want."

He lifted his head and looked at me, his eyes heavy-lidded, the corners of his mouth curling up slightly. I'd seen that expression before, but it was the first time I'd seen it directed at me. I liked that, I liked that a lot. The ache in my chest eased.

"Sounds good," he said, nodding judiciously. "It'll save time in the morning."

"Oh, yeah?" I raised an eyebrow. "And what do you have planned for the morning, Sandburg?"

"Nothing much. Just want to map out some property I've recently acquired an interest in." He nibbled under my jaw and rubbed his crotch against mine.

I groaned, but more in anticipation than immediate need. We were too tired to do this justice right now. So I rolled on my side, dumping him on the floor.

"Hey!" He lay there, laughing.

I stood and gave him a hand up. "Don't be too long, Chief." He winked and disappeared into the bathroom, and I made my way up the stairs.


I woke up with an armful of Sandburg.

God, I liked the sound of that. And the feel.

He had one arm wrapped around me, and our legs were tangled together. I could feel his morning hard-on through our shorts, and matched it with one of my own. I kissed his ear, the part I could reach without moving, and gasped when his hand moved down to stroke me.

"Mornin', Jim." His voice was muffled against my neck.

"Mornin', Chief." I reached out and stroked him, too, grinning when he gasped as well.

We had to shift a little, to accommodate both our hands, and I teased his cock out of the flap in his shorts. He shivered as I rubbed my thumb over the tip, and pulled mine free, mirroring my actions. Then he sped up the rhythm, and yelped when I hurried to catch up. It didn't take long before we both grunted and came, our hands and breaths slowing together.

He kissed my neck and pulled back. I stared at him for a long time. I wanted to remember this, remember him this way.

It was the first time I'd seen Sandburg after making love.

But not the last.

End