Friday night was poker night at Simon's.
Jim couldn't think of a better end to the week than to sit at a table with his friends and colleagues and play a little friendly poker. Simon's house was very comfortable to Jim. It smelt of cigars and warmth and the under lying spice of Simon's scent. The furniture was solid, neutral colors. The decorations on the walls and bookshelves added the colour to rooms. Photos adorned every wall - photo's of Daryl and the Banks family and the men and women at Major Crimes.
Taggert and Brown and Rafe sat at Simon's dining room table talking quietly, a beer at their elbows, snacks in easy reach. Simon was in the kitchen, decanting the last of the salsa and Daryl was in the lounge, watching television.
The only thing that would make the night perfect for Jim was if Blair was there too. Blair had a really nasty cold and after the fountain Jim was always worried that his Guide would develop pneumonia again. The damage from the drowning made Blair more susceptible to chest infections. His last cold had turned into bronchitis over night - so Jim had confined Blair to bed as soon as his cold hit. That was only yesterday, but Jim was taking no chances.
Blair had insisted that Jim go to the poker game that night - had insisted rather stridently in fact. Jim's hovering wore old real quick, and though Blair appreciated that his friend only wanted to take care of him Blair could only tolerate so much pampering. It was evident to Jim that adults hadn't really done much for Blair-the-child, leaving Blair-the-adult unsure of how to accept loving care.
So Jim had gone to poker night, leaving Blair on the couch wrapped and propped and within easy reach of the phone and the water Jim had left out.
Simon came back into the dining room and set down the salsa. In the background the television droned on and he glanced at the lounge area - obviously debating whether to go in to ask his son to turn it down little. Daryl had been set a homework assignment that included watching a documentary being shown that night about Desert Storm. Simon hadn't been too keen on the idea of his son watching a show about that but who was he to argue with the modern history teacher?
A trailer for the documentary blared across the room and Simon sighed, shaking his head as he sat down.
"Dad!" Daryl screamed, "It's Blair! Quick Dad - come and look."
Everyone piled through the doorway and stared at the screen and the wriggling teenager.
"…We'll meet the support crews that cared for our troops in the Storm and in particular one of the medi-vac crews that had the misfortune to be shot down while rescuing wounded troops…" the announcer was saying while the screen showed a picture of a modified Apache. In the foreground three people leaned against the chopper. One was a woman in green fatigue pants and shirt. Her hair was very short and she wore tinted sunglasses against the sun that was obviously beating down. The man beside her was heavily muscled, but slender with it. He had a goatee and a bald head and his dark skin shone in the light. The third man was Blair. His hair was short. He wore a singlet and the many-pocketed fatigues that the mechanics Jim had known favored. His dog tags sparkled in the sun and he held one hand up in a characteristic gesture to block the sun from his eyes.
The show cut to a commercial and they looked at each other in shock.
"Hairboy was in the army?" Brown spluttered and Jim stared at Simon in shock. Rafe sat down next to Daryl.
"Is this the show you were supposed to watch?" Simon asked his son, sitting next to the brightly clad youth. He took the remote away and hit the record button for the VCR. The tape that was in there started up with a whir.
"Yeah," Daryl nodded looking shocked. Blair was a secret hero to Daryl - a man who believed in peace and acted on it. A man who refused to let others tell him who to be or how to act, but knew when to conform for the safety of others. A man who was brave and caring, who could be trusted to do what he said he'd do. How could such a man have lied all this time?
Jim stumbled to an armchair and sank into it. He stared at the television blankly while the commercials ran and the others settled around the room to watch.
The commercial ended and the producer appeared a man in his forties with very carefully done hair, make up and a casual suit. His name appeared in the bottom of the screen, but Jim was too stunned to take it in. His voice was warm and professionally smooth after years of media work. The background behind him was a shot of the base - presumably the one where he'd met Blair.
"My team and I were assigned to the third airborne unit. I had a camera operator and a sound technician and myself. We spent about a week interviewing the regular troops and officers. Then we got permission to travel with a medi-vac crew for a few flights. We first met with the crew of Apache Two a week later. They were a three-person crew. Captain Sarah Finegan was the crew doctor. She was career military and her family was all military before her. Sergeant Max Tallacy had joined the med. core straight out of high school and worked his way up through the ranks. He was single at the time we met, but has gotten married since. Their pilot was Major Blair Sandburg. He'd been recruited right out of college into the ground support crews well before Desert Storm came along. His superior officers had discovered his talent for flying and trained him in Apaches. Of the three he was the pacifist. Under UN charter medical personnel are to go unarmed into the field, as are their vehicles - Major Sandburg has flown under fire many times - the survival of his crew and passengers relies solely on his expertise in combat maneuvers."
The scene behind the producer enlarged and he faded off the screen. The camera jerked and then began to move. A private stepped into the picture and walked just ahead, obviously leading the camera operator…
"I'm sure that Captain Finegan will be in the supply tent at this time of day, sir," the private's voice cut in abruptly, "She's usually there this time of day to check over the emergency packs the troops are given and re-supply her own gear at the same time."
The camera jolted along between two tents and the private held the flap of a second tent open. Inside it was quiet and still.
"Captain Finegan?" the private called. The tent housed boxes stacked upon each other and labeled clearly with their contents. There was movement among the stacks and then the woman from the photo stepped into view. She was a quick, graceful mover and she glared at the private with extreme disfavor.
"Yes?" she snapped her hands full of sealed dressings. Her voice was flat and hard, as were her eyes.
"This is Mr. Dumas and his team, ma'am. The General asked me to escort them to you. The documentary crew?"
"Shit - is that today? Great! Fantastic! Marvelous!" her voice was at odds with her words and the glare was not welcoming.
"I'm Andrew Dumas," the producer stepped into view. He was wearing borrowed fatigues and a smile. He was obviously not military because his hair was too long and his chin too unshaven. He was smiling at the irate woman charmingly, "Call me Andy."
Finegan was obviously less than charmed, evinced by the slight roll of her eyes and the set of her mouth.
"Look, Mr. Dumas, I don't have time for this today - come back in a few weeks, ok?" she rapped out, rapidly stowing gear into a pack. A second man came up and showed for the contents of a box. She nodded and started packing them too.
"Call me Andy, and the General insisted that we'd be able to travel with you for a few weeks," Andy smoothed and the private backed out of the picture. Finegan glared at Andy and shook her head, lips pressed tightly together.
"Stay out of my way Andy," she warned, "I've got no time to hold hands."
She shouldered the pack with a nod to the other man and headed out, Andy hurrying close behind and the camera jogging along to keep up. She led the way through the Tent City the airforce was working from to a line of prefabricated sheds. She cut between two of those sheds and stepped out into an airfield. There was a helicopter nearby and she headed for it without pause.
"Is that your bird, Captain?" Andy asked as he hurried along. Finegan shoved the bag inside the open body of the chopper and glared over at Andy in exasperation.
"This is my ride. It's Burg's bird. He should be here … BURG! WHERE ARE YOU?"
"Here - where else would I be?" the voice came from behind and Finegan whirled. A man with short curls, light muscles and wicked blue eyes was perched on the tail of the chopper. He had a tool kit around his waist and no shirt on. He was tanned and full of energetic little movements.
"What are you doing? We're due to fly in less than two hours and you take apart the ride?" Finegan yelled in exasperation and the young man smiled at her brilliantly.
"Take it easy, Captain Sarah. It's a little routine maintenance. Without it we'd be walking home - ok? And it's not a ride - it's a bird," he said in a warm and happy voice. Finegan glared up at him, but there was a twinkle in the glare that hadn't been there before.
"Birds have feathers, Burg. Do you see any feathers here?" she replied with starch. Burg grinned and pulled one out of the tool pouch around his waist, leaned down and tucked it behind her ear.
"I do now," he chuckled and Finegan glared at the laughing man, then joined in too. Andy laughed as well, but you got the sense that he wasn't a part of the joke. Burg straightened up and went back to manipulating the parts of the tail rotor assembly.
"Major Sandburg, I'm Andy Dumas. My team and I are making a documentary about our efforts here and we'll be flying with you on a couple of missions," Andy introduced himself and held up a hand. Burg shook his head and held up black palmed hands.
"Dirty hands, dude," Burg replied, "And like hell you'll be flying with us. I got room for three bodies and my team only - I'm not sacrificing someone's life so you can take pretty pictures."
"The General has Okayed it," Andy smiled harder and Burg snorted. He dropped the housing back into place and slid down to ground level.
"You think waving my superior officer in my face will get me to jump through hoops? You're gonna have to do better than that," Burg growled, "I'll be back Captain Sarah. Sergeant Max said he'd be here in ten minutes with the last of the supplies. We'll do the pre-flight then. And Andy - I'll talk to the General. Maybe he can find us a milk run to take you on."
Burg jogged off towards one of the buildings and Andy frowned over at Finegan. She shrugged at him and folded her arms.
"I'm sorry, Andy. His word is final. After all he flies this thing - I'm a passenger. And you have to admit he has a good reason. How are we supposed to explain to a wounded soldier that you and your camera are more important?" she made her voice sound reasonable and Andy could find no answer to that.
The program logo appeared on the screen and commercials began to roll. Simon's phone rang, as did Jim's cell. Taggert's sounded too followed by Rafe and Brown. Everyone found a colleague on the other end of the line.
All the callers wanted to know if the men were watching and was it really true? Was the hippie ex military? Jim growled and hung up; Brown swore and hung up. Rafe hung up without answering and Taggert made a snide comment before hanging up. Simon's caller was the Chief of Police, so he had to be a little more polite. Of course the Chief would keep tabs on anything affecting his favorite Cop of the Year - including his partner it seemed.
"He's not the Blair I know," Daryl sounded amazed, "He's … Burg, not Blair. But his smile and the way he talks - they're the same. How is that possible?"
"Hairboy has changed a little is all," Brown soothed, "He's grown up a lot since he started hanging out with Ellison."
"I always thought he was so naïve when we first met - you know some academic who'd never seen real life like we had," Taggert admitted heavily, "But now - my God, he's seen things I can't imagine."
"Jim - did you know about this? Did he ever tell you?" Rafe asked in a shocked voice. Jim looked at him with shuttered eyes and shook his head.
"When Kincaid was leaving the PD in the chopper he forced the pilot to land by threatening him with a flare gun," Simon spoke up, remembering the reports suddenly, "The pilot said that Sandburg told him he flew Apaches in Desert Storm."
<Kill me and we all go down buddy. >
<I don't think so punk. I flew Apaches in Desert Storm. Now turn this thing around! >
The words ran through Jim's head and for a moment he was handcuffed to that helicopter again, with Kincaid hanging off his legs. Blair's voice left no room for doubt or speculation and the pilot had turned around. Jim had dismissed the threat as a lie - told convincingly to save their lives. He hadn't known Blair for long back then but had already formed the impression that truth took on elastic qualities at Blair's hands. He shivered and looked up at Simon in shock.
"He never said anything to me," Jim's voice sounded lost. Daryl looked up at the detective and shook his head.
"I'm not surprised, Jim. How do you tell the best friend who barely survived a helicopter crash that you used to pilot a helicopter yourself? Whatever reason made Blair give it up has to be a pretty big reason. I mean he wouldn't just walk away from a commitment would he? Not the Blair I know," Daryl's voice was matter of fact and Simon took a moment to appreciate that his son was rapidly growing into a man. Jim straightened a little and nodded at Daryl.
The screen rolled off a final commercial and the theme music for the documentary sounded as the logo appeared. Andy Dumas followed, sitting in front of a still shot of a hanger. There was a Red Cross painted on the doors and behind the shed you could see the tents that formed the barracks and offices of the men and women stationed there.
"We missed that first mission. Major Sandburg was right - a wounded soldier was more important than taking pretty pictures. I guess we scored points with the three of them by not pressing for immediate entry. However I was determined to accompany them on their next mission and enlisted the General's help in pushing through our request. While we were waiting for the team on Apache Two to return we did a little background research on the crew," Andy said and smiled, "I'll have to admit at first glance they were a wacky bunch, but then we got to know them."
Andy emerged from the hangar and ignored the camera in favor of turning to speak to the Sergeant beside him. They shook hands and the Sergeant returned to the hangar while Andy went to stand profiled dramatically by the landing field. After a moment a siren sounded in the distance and the emergency crews boiled out of the hangar and took their places around the field. Several choppers came in low and fast, pocked with bullet holes and streaked with oil and dirt.
Apache Two landed near the waiting ambulances and Burg leapt down from his seat to help carry stretchers. Andy began narrating what he saw for the camera, raising his voice to be heard.
"It is not usual for a pilot to help with the casualties - the pilots' one and only responsibility is to the bird they fly and its maintenance. Major Sandburg is unusual in that he doesn't stay in the closely defined guidelines of his role. The Major was recruited directly from college where he'd just gained his masters in anthropology. He's on a short-term contract with the Air Force. His genius with machines got him promoted to Sergeant and given supply runs to various troops. He was given some bad Intel and was shot down in the desert. He was hunted for four days before managing to return to base with intelligence that later saved lives. He was promoted to Captain for his efforts. The reasons for his promotion to Major remain classified - though rumor says that he saved the lives of thirty soldiers with his courage and tenacity. His wages are clearing his academic debts and he's made no secret of the fact that he intends to return to academia when his hitch is up. Despite that, Major Sandburg is very popular among the people he works with on a daily basis. I think we can see why," Andy half yelled as Burg first caught and then carried a wounded man struggling from Apache Two. Burg's face was grim and shuttered as he moved quickly to the waiting ambulance.
Finegan was running along beside a stretcher - her cotton scrub suit splattered with blood. She was reciting statistics to the male doctor that ran alongside her.
"Captain Finegan graduated top of her class and went straight to the Air Force. Her family has a long history with the armed forces - are in fact enlisted in all three branches. This is her first field assignment. Originally she was a ground-based medic, but two weeks into her time here she went out on an emergency mission and was promoted to field medicine based on her performance under fire. She's been decorated for bravery and her academic work is sought after by several medical journals - some of them civilian publications like the London Lancet," Andy yelled over the noise again as the camera watched Finegan's hands deftly check a dressing and smooth the face of her patient kindly, "She has a brother in the Army stationed out here - they meet whenever their leave coincides."
Tallacy jogged into view, bracing a man on his stretcher as the core man shuffled rapidly towards the ambulance.
"Sergeant Tallacy joined the Air Force straight out of high school and was found to have an aptitude for emergency medicine. He's working on getting his formal doctorate part time. Tallacy gave his place in Apache Two to a wounded soldier during a recent pick up. He secured himself to the doorframe and stood on the bird's skid for the entire two-hour flight - leaning in to assist with the wounded when he could. It's known around the base as ‘Tallacy's Ride'. He was decorated for the feat, but turned down a promotion to head up his own team on the ground - preferring to remain on the front lines with Apache Two and her crew."
Tallacy helped load the stretcher and climbed in behind his patient. Burg slammed the door shut and stood back, hands on hips as the ambulance pulled away. Andy headed over quickly and the camera followed along jerkily.
"Burg!" Andy hailed the pilot who shook himself out of whatever thoughts he'd been having and turned to face the producer.
"Hello Mr. Dumas," Burg's voice was polite, but not enthused. His eyes were shuttered and his body quite still. Andy flashed an expert smile at Burg and it bounced right off the pilot.
"Call me Andy," Andy insisted, "Was this mission a rough one?"
"Routine enough - you know I can't discuss it," Burg's voice was decidedly cooler and Andy nodded rapidly to show his understanding.
"I don't want details," he said hastily, "Just trying to get an idea of a typical day for Apache Two."
"Well typically, I'll clean my bird now and get some maintenance done on her. Not too exciting," Burg turned and headed for the crews that were already unrolling hoses and preparing buckets. A few were pulling on gloves before collecting the medical waste that littered the inside of the bird - medics in a hurry didn't bother with bins, and Apaches didn't carry them anyway. The cameraman jostled in for a close up on the inside of the bird and then Burg was in the way, hosing it out and chatting to the ground crew.
"Will you be attending debrief?" Andy asked, standing just out of the way of the splashes of pink run off. Burg nodded without replying and the logo for the show faded over the bloody water running off the tarmac and sinking into the dry ground.
Phones were ignored this time as the people in the living room tried to reconcile the pain their gentle friend carried with the carefree exterior he usually showed. Daryl was leaning into Simon's side, his father's arm around him protectively.
"I guess that's why he hates the morgue," Brown muttered and then blushed when Jim shot him a fierce glance. Rafe shook his head.
"Why didn't he say anything? He's a decorated hero!" Rafe jumped up and started pacing, "Is he embarrassed by his actions? Is he ashamed of serving?"
"Easy, Rafe," Taggert soothed, "If I know Blair he didn't say anything because he felt there was nothing to say. I've noticed how quiet he is when someone brings up their own time in the forces and I'm guessing he feels…"
"Inadequate," Jim spoke up, and everyone stared at him in shock, "He refused to carry a gun or fight. That's something we all did. It's something we do daily. Sandburg would see his refusal to do so as a kind of betrayal of our ideals. So he wouldn't bring it up. It wouldn't matter how well he did - how high he got promoted. He wouldn't want to cause conflict."
"Jim's right," Simon spoke up, not lifting his cheek from the top of Daryl's head, "Sandburg's world view is really warped in some areas. This is probably one of them."
They thought about this and made their peace with it. Blair could be very diffident when it came to offering information about certain areas of his past. By the time they prized that information lose they realised he was reticent due to a misplaced sense of shame or embarrassment. Daryl stirred and reached for the now silent phone.
"Should we call Blair?" he asked, and Simon put out a hand to stop him.
"No - if we discuss this it should be in person…" he began and was shushed by Jim as the last commercial was replaced by the documentary logo and theme music.
The scene faded in. Finegan and Tallacy were standing at the edge of one of the cliffs that bordered the canyons that twisted through that part of the desert. Andy was standing next to Finegan in dramatic profile again. The shot unfroze and Andy turned off camera to call,
"Burg! The view is incredible! Are you coming to look?"
"No thanks, I can see just fine from here," Burg's voice called back and Tallacy turned to grin off camera and Finegan shook her head.
"Burg is afraid of heights," she told Andy, her voice amused and indulgent, "Weird, huh? The best pilot I've ever met is afraid of heights."
"I am not!" Burg stepped into shot indignantly. They were all wearing desert fatigues and he was an indignant blur as he paced forward, stopping before he got too close to the edge.
"It's a control thing," Burg sighed in resignation and glanced at Andy, "I don't like walking up to the edge of a long drop, knowing that if the edge gave way there's nothing I could do to stop it. I don't like to fly unless I'm at the stick either."
"The only competent pilot being you?" Andy mused, and Tallacy growled in disgust. Burg just laughed and shook his head.
"Nope - I just have control issues," he shrugged, not bothering to explain any further. Finegan moved away from the edge and smiled at Burg.
"My dad is the exact same way with his car - he's the only one who can drive it and he won't be a passenger in someone else's car if he can possibly avoid it," she said to Burg, ignoring Andy and the camera. Burg shrugged.
"Knowing my luck I'll get back to civilian life and end up working with someone who has the exact same issues," he chuckled and Tallacy laughed too, turning away from the view to join his crew mates.
"Now that's a fight I'd love to see," the big man rumbled, "In fact I'd pay real money to see that!"
"You wanna walk home, Sergeant Max?" Burg mock growled and they headed back for the jeep that they'd come in. Andy settled in the back with Burg and Finegan while Tallacy drove and the camera rode shot gun. Obviously Burg's ‘issues' didn't extend to driving.
"So tomorrow, we go up together," Andy said, obviously excited. Finegan heaved a sigh that squashed Burg into Andy's side and Burg elbowed her a little.
"One of your team comes along with a small hand held camera," Burg clarified, "And we're just going to drop some supplies off to another base."
"That's ok. I just want to see how you all work together in the bird," Andy agreed. You got the sense that he was trying not to gloat.
"It's not a bird," Finegan mumbled and Burg glared at her.
"It's not a ride," he snapped immediately, and they began to argue. The scene had the air of an oft-played argument as they bickered back and forth, Burg's hands waving; Finegan sitting slouched and still.
The sound of the argument faded out and Andy faded in over the top of the still moving picture.
"We went up the next day. Sergeant Tallacy collected me from my tent and hurried me across to Apache Two. This was my first and only time in the air with this crew and I have to say I was impressed by the way they operated as a team. The flight didn't go according to plan - but you'll see for yourself what happened."
The scene behind Andy faded to black and then back in again. This footage was obviously shot from a camcorder. Burg was in full uniform, a pair of aviator's sunnies on his nose. He was sitting in the cockpit, hands on the controls, easy in his manner and whistling as he competently ran the pre-flight checks. Satisfied everything was in order he leaned out the open door and yelled,
"C'mon you two - I ain't got all day!"
"Coming dad!" Finegan and Tallacy chorused back and Burg grinned, slamming his door shut. Finegan and Tallacy ran over from where they'd been checking the last of their gear and climbed into the bird, tossing a couple of duffels up against Burg's seat and sliding the door shut against the sand now blowing around from the rotor wash.
"Damn kids," he growled and radioed their readiness.
"Are we there yet?" Finegan whined, sticking her head into the cockpit.
"She's looking at me," Tallacy added, sticking his head in too.
"I swear, I'll turn this helicopter right around," Burg laughed as they lifted away from the ground smoothly, "And get your butts behind the yellow line!"
Finegan and Tallacy laughed and settled back into the body of the bird as the base rapidly dwindled in the distance. Andy panned the camera around a little. The radio spat and crackled with various calls and code signs. Finegan and Tallacy lounged against the wall and talked over the noise of the rotors.
"Just a Sunday outing with the kids, huh?" Andy said to Burg who grinned, but didn't answer as he looked out the side window. The radio traffic was beginning to increase and Tallacy leaned back into the cockpit.
"What's the word?" he asked Burg, who shrugged and glanced out the side window again. Tallacy settled on the floor to listen to the radio and Andy focussed on him for a moment before panning to Finegan, who was asleep, finally panning to look at the desert rushing along underneath them.
The base they landed at was mostly underground - hastily excavated dug outs with canvass and camouflage roofing them in. A couple of soldiers appeared to square away the supplies and Finegan disappeared with Tallacy to check on a soldier. Burg leaned against the side of Apache Two to wait for them to return and Andy focussed on the totally still man for a moment, before the logo and theme music appeared.
"Woah - Hairboy can stand still?" Brown leaned back from the screen and shook himself a little. Everyone in the lounge had been leaning forward eagerly to get a glimpse of Blair doing his thing. True to form the phones went mad again, but they just ignored the noise in favor of each other.
"It looked ... wrong," Rafe shook his head, "In the bull pen he can't even sit still - he's always jiggling a leg or tapping a finger."
"Grooving to the music in his head," Taggert laughed fondly and the others laughed too. Jim frowned a little.
"That's what Connor called it," Taggert explained to Jim, "You were in court and Blair was at your desk doing your paperwork - as always - and she was staring in fascination. Then she muttered that under her breath and went back to work."
Jim smiled a little and Daryl chuckled.
"Blair looked good in the cockpit," Daryl said suddenly, "Like he was supposed to be there, you know?"
"Daryl, I learned a long time ago, that anything Sandburg sets his mind to do he masters," Simon chuckled, "Look at how much he's achieved."
"That's right," Taggert agreed, "I'd be surprised if he wasn't a competent pilot."
"Jim - why did Blair always do your paperwork?" Daryl asked now. As he was an innocent bystander, Jim refrained from the Glare of Death and opened his mouth to reply.
"Still does," Brown spoke up, and Jim glared at his colleague, who didn't back down. Rafe moved out of the line of Jim's glare, leaving his partner to defend himself.
"Thank God. When it comes to reports, Jim's are a little … sparse," Simon said dryly, "At least Sandburg can string more than five sentences together and make it interesting."
"Sir! I'm not that bad," Jim defended himself and Simon glared over at him.
"Jim, I swear to God - the last report you gave me read - and I quote - ‘saw suspect, chased suspect, caught suspect, talk to Sandburg'," Simon growled and Jim blushed while the others howled with laughter. Daryl gasped for breath and leaned into his father who grinned at Jim in apology and put his hand on his son's shoulder. Jim shook his head and growled half-heartedly. The tension that had been building had dispersed.
"How long does this show run for?" Taggert asked when they'd calmed down. Daryl looked at his watch.
"It's an hour - so we've got fifteen minutes to go," he replied as the last commercial blurted from the screen, followed by theme music and the logo again. The picture showed the inside of the chopper…
They were in the air again, and Tallacy sat on the floor again, listening to the radio as it crackled urgently. Finegan was crouched on the fold down jump seat nearby, leaning forward to listen too. The sound of the radio didn't come over clearly on the camcorder's mike. The viewer only got a sense of what was happening from the reactions of the people on the tape.
"They're in a world of hurt, there," Andy said and Burg shot him a sideways glance. Tallacy nodded in agreement as the calls from the team on the ground increased in urgency.
"C'mon, guys - get someone in there to pick them up," Finegan urged tensely, leaning forward and curling her hands into fists. The radio crackled and spat again.
"Do you know where they are?" Andy asked and Burg nodded, his hands white knuckled on the controls in front of him. Tallacy growled in frustration and pounded the floor as the calls crackled around them.
"What!" Finegan blurted, "How can they not send someone in?"
Burg grabbed the radio and sent his position to command along with his request to attempt pick up. Request denied. Finegan began swearing under her breath and Tallacy kicked Andy's seat really hard.
"We're not armed - they've got a point," Andy said softly, "But it still feels wrong."
"You guys got your vests?" Burg twisted his head a little and Finegan slapped him on the shoulder. Tallacy leapt up and hurried out of sight, returning with a flak vest.
"Can you put this on while we're in the air, or should we land?" he asked Burg who shook his head.
"We don't have time for that - besides the civilian will wear it. No arguments Andy - they'll court-martial me for this, but if you get shot they'll feed me into my own rotors feet first. Put it on," Burg ordered, "And I'm ordering you two to accompany me - for the record."
"For the record you'd have to throw me outta here," Finegan growled and Tallacy nodded as he shrugged into his own vest. Andy put the camera on the instrument panel and shrugged into the vest that Tallacy held out. Finegan and Tallacy went into the body of the bird and started rigging up safety harnesses. Burg sent the bird diving to the deck and the ground rushed along at mind numbing speed.
"What's the plan?" Andy asked and Burg glanced over at him.
"They're being headed towards a ravine - I'm gonna fly along the floor of the ravine and pop up. We get them in and get the hell out. I need you to stay quiet unless you see a threat - like another chopper or a grenade launcher or something like that. Can you do this?" Burg was reaching for the radio as he spoke and Andy agreed in a quick voice.
"Echo Kilo Six this is Apache Two. Head for the cliffs - we'll meet you there. ETA ten minutes. Confirm pick up," Blair broke in over HQ's refusal of help and a frantic voice sounded back immediately.
"Confirm the cliffs!"
"Apache Two - stand down! Do not enter the engagement! Stand down!" HQ roared and Burg ignored the order, sending the bird over the edge of the desert and into the twisting ravine. His face was clam yet intent as he followed the twists and turns at high speed. Andy turned the camera to the body of the bird in time to catch Finegan and Tallacy stepping into harness and securing themselves to the doorframe, lurching as the bird swung from side to side to avoid the walls.
"Ready to go!" Finegan yelled, "Opening up now!"
She and Tallacy grabbed the door and slid it open. Air roared in and the bird lurched before Burg got it trimmed again. The sides of the ravine seemed very close to the open door and Tallacy and Finegan had firm grips on the panic straps near the door, designed for just such an occasion.
"Apache Two! Where are you?" the radio howled. Burg replied in a voice so calm that it was almost surreal as he slowed their forward motion and slowly rose above the top of the ravine before sidling closer to the edge once the rotors had cleared it.
"Right here son."
They cleared the top of the ravine in a hail of small rocks, dust and bullets. The trapped soldiers turned from their sparse cover behind a small outcrop of rocks and ran, dragging their wounded comrades.
"Jump!" Tallacy and Finegan roared and almost in slow motion the men leapt the short distance from the edge of the ravine to Apache Two, caught by waiting hands that hauled them in before reaching for the next man. Once in they gave covering fire to their comrades as best they could. A wounded soldier was thrown across and the last man leapt for safety in another hail of bullets. Andy flinched as the side window next to him shattered and the bird shuddered under the impacts.
"Go! Go! Go!" Finegan roared across the now overloaded body and Burg took them straight up, as fast as he could to get out of range before heading back to base.
"Andy - were you hit?" Burg's voice was tense and Andy shook his head.
"No - the window was the only casualty up here," he replied, before twisting to view the scene behind him. Burg's voice could be heard as he confirmed pick up over the radio and informed the MASH unit to stand by for casualties.
In the body of the plane wounded and terrified soldiers huddled on the floor while Finegan and Tallacy triaged and tended to them. The unwounded men were directed to the far side of the bird and told to strap in.
"Finegan," Burg called as the bird shuddered again, "Get them secure and close the door. We're damaged and she's fighting me. We could be looking at a hard landing. Tallacy - get the emergency webbing out."
"How bad?" Finegan yelled as she swung the door shut. Warning lights came on and the instruments started beeping loudly. The noise was urgent and annoying as the machine communicated its displeasure with its pilot.
"Bad enough," Burg's voice was forced as he struggled to steady his damaged machine and keep moving forward. The shudders were travelling through the controls as well as the frame of the machine and Burg was sweating heavily - the first sign of effort he'd shown. Finegan and Tallacy webbed the injured men to the floor and seats, continuing to treat their wounds as they did.
"How far are we from the base?" Finegan yelled as she put pressure on a leg wound. Burg frowned and glanced down at his instruments for a moment.
"Ten minutes from the nearest one - thirty from ours. I'm heading for the nearest!" Burg yelled back in that forced voice and the rotors missed a beat before picking up again.
"Don't do it honey - Keep going for me," Burg cajoled under his breath as he flicked switches and bit his lip. Andy shifted uneasily in his seat and Burg spared him a glance before concentrating on his piloting again.
They made the base - barely. The rotors faltered a few times on the way and the shuddering worsened. The bird was vibrating very badly as Burg eased their speed and lowered them to the pad where the ambulances were waiting. He cut the engine as the bird thumped down hard and leaned back tiredly, closing his eyes. Andy turned and caught the action as Finegan and Tallacy began unloading their passengers in order of priority, calling statistics and histories over the sound of the injured men and the core men. The bird emptied slowly and Andy turned back to look at Burg.
His skin was a dirty yellow colour and he was sweating and shaking. His eyes were closed and he was gasping for breath.
"Omigod! Finegan!" Andy blurted and Finegan leaned into the cockpit.
"Tallacy! Get to the other side! He's been shot! Core man - get me a stretcher!" Finegan roared, "Hurry!"
Burg moaned as his wound was compressed and he was pulled carefully out of his cockpit and onto a stretcher. Tallacy started an IV before taking one end from the core man and heading for the nearest ambulance. Andy ran to keep up, the picture jouncing.
"Stay with me Burg," Finegan urged as she tried to stop the bleeding while she ran alongside the stretcher.
"Look at my damn bird. I just had it washed," Burg's voice was thin and reedy.
"Forget the damn bird. Don't you go out on me! Burg!"
The logo and the theme music cut over the image and everyone swore.
"Relax, guys. We know he's alive," oddly enough Daryl was the voice of reason and Jim backed him up a few minutes later.
"He was shot in the appendix," Jim said it dully, "It's the only scar that matched the wound site. He told me his appendix burst once - he said he was away from help and the infection was a nasty one."
"But he survived - and he was a damn hero too!" Daryl leapt up, "I don't want to see the end of the show dad - I want to talk to Blair!"
Simon handed over the phone and everyone watched as Daryl first cleared the line and then called the loft. He listened eagerly and Jim extended his hearing too. The answering machine picked up. There was no response to Daryl's requests for Blair to pick up and Jim took the phone from the teen.
"Chief? I'm on my way home - it's ok. You all right? Pick up for me, Chief," Jim waited a moment and then handed the phone back to Daryl, who hung up.
"Can I come, Jim?" Daryl asked eagerly, "I mean, he must have known it was on - look at the way our phone went nuts. I want to tell him I'm not mad he never said anything."
Jim looked at the teen and then the others in the room.
"Is anyone mad at him?" Jim asked bluntly, "'Cause if you are I need to know. He doesn't need to be outed like this and then attacked for his beliefs."
"We're good," Taggert spoke for everyone, "In fact I want to tell him that too."
"And us," Rafe jerked his thumb between himself and Brown, who nodded in agreement and stood up.
"We'll meet you there, guys," Simon stood and Daryl ran to get his coat. People hurried out to their cars - lights were flipped on, but not sirens - and they all headed for Prospect.
Jim paused outside the door to the loft and held up his hand for quiet. He focussed his hearing into the loft and Daryl gaped as his father put a hand on Jim's arm to anchor him. It was the first time the teen had seen Jim openly use the senses he had denied to the world.
"Oh no," Jim exclaimed and unlocked the door. Blair was huddled against the door to his room, a packed bag beside him. His breathing rattled in his chest - the cold had turned to bronchitis again.
"Jim," Blair wheezed when his Sentinel reached him, "I'm so sorry. I'll go … you don't have to…"
"Shhh," Jim gathered him close, "Don't leave me. Stay. I'm not mad, Chief. Stay with me, please."
Jim rocked the sick man, feeling the fever and tremors and lung congestion that wracked his friend's body. Simon straightened the scattered blankets and pillows on the couch and Taggert helped Jim carry Blair to them while Brown and Rafe made hot water in the kitchen. They carried the steaming bowl over and placed it near Blair - hoping to ease the congestion a little.
"Should I call a doctor?" Daryl asked nervously as Jim smoothed Blair's face and whispered in his ear. Simon shook his head and stepped back a little.
"Let Jim take care of him - he knows what to do," Simon soothed, "Help me unpack that bag."
Father and son put away the photo of Jim and the few clothes that Blair had stuffed into the pack and put the pack back in the cupboard. When they stepped out of the small room Taggert was sitting on the coffee table behind Jim, who knelt on the floor. Rafe was next to Taggert and Brown stood at Blair's feet. Simon stood at the back of the couch near Brown; Daryl stood near Blair's head. Jim was still stroking Blair's sweaty face and he looked up at Daryl as the teen fidgeted. Daryl took that as an invitation and leaned over Blair to make eye contact.
"Blair?" he asked and Blair looked up sadly, waiting for condemnation, "I … I guess I just wanted to ask if you're coming to the ball game with us on Saturday. Will you be ok?"
Simon felt pride rush through him. Daryl hadn't asked awkward questions or blurted out something about heroes. His son had shown in the best way possible that he was still Blair's friend. That he still wanted that friendship.
"Hey - if he's not we can all come here," Taggert spoke up, "Camp out on the couch and yell at the box."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise and gratitude.
"I'll bring the beer," Brown volunteered and Rafe nodded. They made eye contact with the sick man, letting their faces say what their mouths couldn't.
"I'll bring the snacks, or some at least," Rafe added. Taggert seconded that idea.
"We should probably just plan on being here anyway - it takes a while to get over bronchitis. What time do you want us here, Blair?" Simon spoke up and Blair took a breath. Whatever he was going to say was lost as he started coughing. Simon herded his men to the door, telling them to go home. Jim tossed his cell phone to Simon and the Captain called the precinct doctor while Jim rubbed Blair's chest to ease the cramps.
Blair sat on the couch - his first day out of bed - and looked around at his friends. They were yelling at the game and munching salty snacks and making bets with each other noisily. He grinned over at Jim, who grinned back and handed him a glass of juice - the antibiotics made alcohol a no-no. Daryl was bouncing next to Blair in excitement and Blair moved his glass to avoid accidents.
"Did you see that?"
Blair grinned and sipped his juice. If raising his voice didn't make him cough he'd be yelling too - that was a blatant foul.
The Jags forced a last minute tie and Jim turned the sound down in disgust.
"They gotta do better than that if they want to move up the ladder," Jim growled and watched Rafe pay Taggert and Simon pay Brown. Daryl looked over at Blair and bit his lip a little.
"What's up Daryl? I can see a question hovering," Blair grinned at the youth. Daryl grinned back and wondered if he should be honest. Blair saved him the trouble; "You want to know about that documentary, right? About me being in the Air Force?"
"Yeah," Daryl nodded and realised that everyone was looking at Blair. Blair looked back and nodded.
"I never said anything because … well I didn't want to dishonor the Forces. I mean look at how high they promoted me! I'm a pacifist for Petes sake!" Blair shook his head.
"Credit where credit is due, man," Jim shrugged, "All I did was survive in the jungle - something they trained me to do. You - you went above and beyond."
"Hmm," Blair shook his head, "If you think so, Jim. I don't want to argue about that. So Daryl, I assume you saw the rescue I pulled?"
"You were shot and you still got them to safety. You're a hero," Daryl grinned and Blair frowned in displeasure. Simon put a warning hand on his son's shoulder. Blair's face held faint lines of pain. Rafe and Brown leaned closer to the sick man, and Taggert came to sit on the coffee table. There was acceptance and support in their eyes, and it seemed to give Blair strength.
"A hero is the guy who does something he's had no training or preparation for on the behalf of total strangers. I was doing my job, Daryl. That's how I see it, ok?" he told the teen, "I woke up a week later with a nasty infection and a lawyer. They gave me a pension and a discharge - Andy's tapes kind of played in my defense. I came back here, grew my hair and that was the end of it."
"Why were you leaving? Did you see the documentary?" Taggert spoke up before anyone else could. Blair shook his head.
"Not really," he sighed, "The phone went nuts, though - I guess it was in the first ad break. I found it and saw enough to know that … Jim, I'm sorry, but the last thing I hid from you … you said I'd betrayed you and threw me out. Better to go than be kicked this time. If I'd been thinking…"
"You'd know I would track you down and bring you back. We both know running is not the answer," Jim growled, cursing Alex and fear-based responses, "Chief, you should have seen the Station this week. Anyone who's ever worked with you is walking around bursting with pride."
"I don't..." Blair leaned his head back, getting tired. Jim sighed and leaned over to put a hand on his shoulder.
"Do you trust me, Chief?" Jim asked and Blair nodded quietly, "Then until you're over this bronchitis trust me when I say there is no one at the Station who thinks less of you for what you've done."
"Yeah," Taggert put a hand on Blairs leg and he smiled at them all as they made agreeing noises. Jim stood and the others took their cue to leave so Blair could rest.
Jim shut the door and grinned over at his Guide.
"Your past is your past, Blair. You can't betray me by not telling me about it. The memories must have been painful for you to decide not to share. And I wasn't exactly forthcoming about my time in the Rangers either. Let's just chalk this one up to life and its tricks - ok?"
"Ok," Blair agreed, grinning back. A weight lifted off his shoulders as Jim shook his head and started cleaning up. Alex Barnes had taught them a lot about communicating. A hard lesson to be sure, but one that stood them in good stead today.
"So I suppose I should tell you about the nude centerfold I posed for for the money back when I was going for my Bachelors?" Blair said seriously and watched Jim drop the popcorn.
Author's note: I am not American. Any ideas or information I have about Desert Storm comes from movies. And what I know about Air Force jargon comes from the same source. I hereby acknowledge my lack of knowledge - please ignore anything that was blatantly wrong.
Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Shedoc.