Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Lives On The Line

by Arianna

For PatK,
who requested a scene involving preparation for, involvement in,
or the aftermath of a battle in return for
a donation to the Moonridge Auction 2007

Thanks for your support of Moonridge!

********************

"Hey! Get away from her! Jim! Help! The guy's - argh!"

"Shut the fuck up!"

A child's voice, a little girl, squeaked in terror. "I want my Daddy!" she wailed.

Jim jerked in alarm at the sudden sounds of violent shouts and scuffling that were muffled by brick and glass. His stomach plummeted and he almost whirled around toward the building before years of training kicked in and he caught himself. Breath tight in his chest, he fought the urge to blindly rush to the rescue. Instinct could get a lot of people killed here; he needed to think, do this right. Might just be a scuffle but, equally, he could have a very volatile situation on his hands. A mistake now would be disastrous and at least three lives too many were already on the line - the clerk of the store, the child, and Blair. A quick glance around revealed that the other guy pumping gas hadn't heard anything. Straightening, feigning unconcern, he removed the nozzle of the gas hose from the truck's tank, and replaced it on the pump. First order of business was to keep anyone else from wandering inside the gas station's convenience store, and the next was to get backup ASAP.

All without warning the perp - who was probably nervously watching through the windows - anyone had a clue that something was going down in there.

"Let the little girl go, man. Please. Before her father comes in here and you've got more trouble on your hands. You've got me. You don't need anyone else, right? Let her go."

"I said shut up!"

The kid was sniffling, hiccupping with tears.

Despite his fear, Blair was obviously keeping his head and trying to reason with the perp as well as get the kid out of there. Proud of his partner, at the same time wanting to wring his neck for so willingly offering himself up as a hostage, Jim shook his head. What a freaking mess.

Under the guise of pulling his wallet from his back pocket and counting out the bills, he said with deliberate calm to the guy at the next pump. "I'm a cop. Cascade PD. There's a robbery and assault going on inside the store. NO. Don't look!" he ordered, swiftly moving between the young, stocky man and the store. "Calm down, sir, or you'll make everything worse."

"My little girl's in there!" he cried in panic.

"Quiet! She's okay, she's okay. I'm going to go in there and get her out. But I need you to call 911, tell them Detective Ellison needs backup. Robbery in progress, hostage situation. Give them the location. Can you do that?"

"I is this a j-joke?" he asked, shaken, not wanting to believe what was happening. "Because this is really sick -"

"No joke. I need your help and I need it now," Jim cut in, his tone hard and sharp to give the guy structure and to assert control before the man lost it and made a very bad situation a good deal worse. "Your little girl needs you to do this right. What's her name? And what's your name?"

"Chrissy. And, and I'm Ben Friedmont," he replied, panting now, horror widening his eyes and sucking the blood from his face. "I d-don't have a c-cell phone."

"No problem, Ben. There's one in the truck. Go in on the passenger side and keep down. You'll find it in my jacket pocket. After you've made the call, stay there. You'll be safe."

"You'll save Chrissy, right? You'll save her?" Ben pleaded, his voice quaking. "She's only five." He took a step toward the store. "I have to go -"

"No! Don't, Ben. I know you're scared for her, but you can't go in there. I'm a cop. Let me do my job. I'll do all I can to get her out very soon. I need you to make the call. Now."

Then, knowing he had no time to waste, careful to keep his movements unhurried as he continued his ruse of counting out bills for the gas payment, Jim turned and began to amble toward the entrance. Reaching out with his senses, he only picked up three heartbeats and frowned. The clerk must already be dead. Not good; in fact, very, very bad. Meant the killer had nothing to lose. Flicking a casual glance up at the building, he opened his sight to see through the plate glass windows - so visceral was his reaction, he thought he might vomit when he zeroed in on the pistol pressed to Blair's temple. The big, beefy killer had Sandburg pinned against his chest, a thick arm around the kid's throat in a chokehold. Blair was white as a ghost, his mouth open as he sucked in air.

Goose pimples rose on Jim's skin, the warm day suddenly cold and the light somehow darker, as if a cloud had passed over the sun and the balmy breeze had become icy. Rage at the unknown perp seared through him, tightening his throat, making his mouth dry. But he couldn't afford the fury that would only muddy his thinking and his reactions, make him impulsive and careless. Nor could he allow the sick fear for Blair's life that twisted like a vice in his gut. God, it was so much harder when loved ones were involved. He knew that; shit, he could feel it. And he knew his emotions would only get in the way, but it was damned hard to quash them.

Blair's frantic heartbeat and terrified panting was roaring in his ears. Chrissy's muffled, strangled wails tore at him; poor kid, she was doing her best to be brave. Jim's fingers tightened, curling into fists; he wanted to squash the bastard like a bug for terrifying her and his partner. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to calm down and, slowing his approach even more, he scratched his cheek as he tilted his head and wrestled his hearing down a notch. He needed to hear enough to know what was going on, but he couldn't think with those pitiful sounds blasting in head.

"Don't come in here, man." Blair's frightened whisper rasped over his ears like sandpaper - and yanked on his heart. Jesus, in the midst of his own clear peril, Blair was trying to keep him safe and out of danger? Jim felt dizzy and realized he'd begun to hyperventilate. Ruthlessly and with a tinge of desperation, he again reminded himself that emotion had no place here.

Easier said than done, he thought, impatient with himself and his body's reactions to the stress of the situation. His palms were damp, and the slight tremor in his hands betrayed the rigid tension in his body. He took another deep breath to steady himself, his gaze traveling lightly across the windows as he slid his wallet back in his pocket and resumed his slow walk toward the double glass doors. He couldn't see the girl, but sound placed her closer to the door than Blair. That was good. She was some distance from the shooter and her position gave Jim a chance to get between her and danger.

Behind him, he heard Ben Friedmont talking urgently into his cell phone, begging for help, barely articulate, but at least he got the basic information - and the urgency of the situation - across. Backup would arrive in minutes.

Unfortunately, Ben wasn't the only one panicking here. The perp was sweating heavily and grinding the muzzle of his pistol into Blair's temple hard enough to make his friend wince. Minutes weren't going to do it. Too much bad stuff could happen in seconds. He couldn't afford to wait.

Whistling tunelessly, as he neared the door he let his gaze drift as if he was idly glancing around. Gripping the money in his right hand, he reached for the door with his left. Pushing it open to the jangle of a bell, he caught the sickening smell of fresh blood, which confirmed his suspicions about the invisible clerk. His right hand swept down and back, loosened to let the bills fall away and he pulled his pistol from the holster in the small of his back. Still looking into the distance, hoping he appeared like an oblivious shopper to increase the killer's confidence and not push him into reacting with immediate violence, he angled the right side of his body away as he shouldered the door wide.

He kept going, still pretending to be unaware as he took two steps inside - which placed Chrissy within reach. She looked up at him with wide, tear-filled eyes, her face flushed with fear. The perp shouted, "Stop! Stop right there!"

Even as he lifted his gaze, he shifted his stance, bringing his weapon around in one fast, smooth line. Both arms locked, the pistol steadied by his left hand, he pointed it directly at the killer's face. "Cascade PD. Drop it," he snapped, his voice loud in the sudden silence.

Shocked, the perp blinked and gasped. "Shit!" he cursed, and his arm tightened convulsively around Blair's throat, choking him. It took everything Jim had to keep his intimidating glare locked on the killer's eyes but, on the edge of his vision, he could see Blair struggling frantically, gripping the man's arm and trying to drag it down. He couldn't hear Blair breathing - his air was cut off!

"Whoa, whoa! Both of you just take it easy," Jim hurried to direct, his incisive tones low and calm though he was terrified that if Blair kept struggling he was likely to get his head blown off. "C'mon, let the guy breathe. Nobody has to get hurt here." Blair immediately stilled, but the wild, desperate look in his eyes and clenched jaw signaled he still wasn't getting any air. "C'mon!" Jim ordered, his tone now urgent. "Let him breathe, dammit! He's no use to you dead!"

Abruptly, the huge man loosened his grip enough to let Blair suck in a gasp of air, and Jim nodded approvingly with more than a little relief. "Good," he murmured. "Good."

But there was nothing good about the situation. Nothing good at all. This behemoth was a loose cannon; the hand holding the pistol to Blair's head was shaking and sweat was pouring down the beefy, flushed, unshaven face. Dressed in unkempt, dirty clothing, the perp looked like an out-of-work bouncer - and a junkie in real bad need of a fix. Jim had to get the little girl clear before it all went sour. Slowly, careful to maintain his steady aim, he reached his left hand down toward the dark-haired pixie in dungarees. "Chrissy, come here," he said gently. "Get behind me, sweetheart, okay?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her look uncertainly at him. She sniffed, confused, scared, not sure what to do. "Your Daddy's outside and he's waiting for you," Jim encouraged her, anxious to get her out of the line of fire. "The bad man isn't going to hurt you. Are you, buddy?" he asked, keeping the perp's attention on him. "You're not going to hurt the little kid."

He saw the guy's eyes shift, read his indecision, smelled his fear. "Hurry, Chrissie," he urged, his voice steady, confident. "Go to your Daddy."

She hesitated a moment more, and then whirled to fly past him and out the door, the jangling bell letting him know she was in the clear. He heard Ben cry out in relief. In the distance, he also heard the pulsing wail of sirens, and he clenched his jaw against the urge to curse in frustration. The junkie had flinched at the irritating sound of the innocuous bell; sirens could send him over the top. God, he hoped someone thought to order a silent approach before they got much closer.

He glanced at Blair, to see how he was holding up. His fists clenched at his sides, pale with fear, the kid still managed to give him a small, sad, smile. Then his lips moved, soundlessly to the perp, Jim knew, but not for him. "Good move, Jim. I didn't want her to see ." Blair swallowed and his gaze faltered. "Thanks, man. I'm glad she's safe," he whispered, a little louder, his voice still sounding strangled.

At first, Jim didn't get it, didn't realize what Blair was saying. But when the wide blue eyes so filled with hopeless anguish lifted again to meet his, understanding hit him like a punch in the gut. Blair didn't think he was going to make it.

Well screw that. No way was he going to let this bastard kill Sandburg. No way.

"Okay," Jim said, to fill the silence, to keep the perp's attention focused on him and to do what he could to reassure Blair. He slid a half-step to the side to get a clearer line of fire. "Everything's going to be okay here. Just let the man go."

"NO FUCKING WAY!" the guy screamed and jammed the barrel of the gun so hard against Blair's head that his partner winced and made a slight, involuntary grunt. "Stay back or I'll kill him. I'll KILL him!"

"No, no," Jim soothed, though his heart was clenching in fear. "You don't want to do that. Don't need to do that. It'd be a real dumb move, sport. He's no threat to you. But if you shoot him, I'll have to shoot you, and you'll be dead. You don't want to die, do you? Huh?"

This guy was losing it fast. Between one blink of an eye and the next, in less than a heartbeat, Blair could be dead. Lifting his left hand in a reassuring gesture, Jim kept the pistol level and debated risking a shot. But the danger was too great. A headshot would kill the bastard, sure - but that didn't guarantee muscles spasming in death wouldn't trigger the pistol.

"D-drop your gun," the perp ordered him. "NOW!"

"Don't," Blair countered through clenched teeth, barely able to move his jaw with that thick arm across his throat, forcing his head back into the big man's chest. "Don't do it."

"SHUT UP!" the killer yelled and tightened the chokehold. His panting gasps for air shallow and strained, unable to hide his fear, Blair blinked to clear reddened eyes, looked away and swallowed hard.

Jim could hear the sirens getting closer, the wail undulating in the air. The junkie's eyes widened and Jim knew the guy had heard them, too, though they were still at least a block away.

"You deaf?" the killer demanded. "I said drop it!"

"Nooo!" Blair rasped, commanding pleading.

"We've got a Mexican stand-off here," Jim interjected, doing his best to sound reasonable, even on the friendly side with the hope of keeping the murderous addict from losing it completely. "A balance of power, right? That's good enough for right now." He licked his lips and swallowed to moisten his bone-dry throat. "This place is going to be swarming with cops soon. You can't get away. Your best bet is to surrender right now, before you get yourself in any deeper."

"No way, man," the junkie whined. "No way. I know what'll happen. You'll kill me."

"No, I wouldn't do that," Jim assured him with a tight smile. "My job's to arrest you; that's all."

"Yeah, sure, and then what, huh? Toss me in jail?" His voice was rising in maddened panic. "Let me rot? Nuh-uh, man, I'd rather be dead." His expression became slyly mean, full of hate. "But I'm not going to die alone, am I?" Again he ground the snout of his weapon into Blair's head, drawing blood from the thin, abraded skin.

Blair closed his eyes tightly and pressed his lips together.

"Nobody has to die!" Jim cajoled but he knew time was running out.

The junkie laughed, a cunning, ugly sound. "Somebody already has," he sneered, jerking his head toward the counter. "What's one more?"

"It's no good, man," Blair grated then. Jim darted a look at him, and didn't like what he saw. Blair didn't look scared anymore, just weirdly calm and resolute.

"The man told you to be quiet," Jim cautioned, afraid of what his partner might be thinking - and worse, far worse, what he might do. "That's probably a good idea."

"Nah, he's gonna kill me. We all know that," Blair insisted, his tone resigned. "Sorry-assed bastard is too dumb to figure out that he's got a human shield here. He's gonna waste me, man."

"Yeah," the killer agreed with malicious zeal, evidently responding to the submission in Blair's voice, apparently loving the sense of power it gave him. "Yeah, yeah. Gonna kill you, runt."

"Shut up," Jim ordered, his gut in knots. He could see small tremors in the muscles of the trigger finger, knew the guy was itching to pull it.

Blair did his best to smile, and that chilled Jim's blood. Oh God, Blair's steady gaze was now filled with compassion and a terrible regret. Jim wanted to scream at him to keep his mouth shut, to not do anything stupid, but he didn't dare lose control.

"Stupid, huh," Blair observed, almost sounding wryly philosophical in spite of the arm crushing his throat, leaving his voice rough and raw. "Shoot the hostage and lose the shield between him and you," he went on, talking faster now, as if he knew he was up against a fatal deadline. "Instead of shooting the guy who's holding a gun on him first. You'd think he'd be able to figure out something so simple. But, apparently not."

"Shut up, Sandburg!" Jim yelled then, very close to losing it. The situation was tense enough already without Blair making it infinitely worse.

The perp's eyes widened. "What? You know this guy?" he demanded. "He a cop, too?"

"No, no, he's just a grad student," Jim hastened to explain, furious with himself for having given away the fact they weren't strangers. What the hell game was Blair playing? He wasn't stupid. He had to know he was aggravating the bastard, egging him on. Playing into his sick need for power and control.

"He's a friend of yours, though, right?" the guy wheedled. "You don't want to see me blow his brains out in front of you, right? Right? So drop your gun!"

"Don't you do it, Jim," Blair cut in fiercely through gritted teeth. "He'll just kill us both. He's gonna leave himself wide open, man. So, you take him down," Blair growled. "Do him and the rest of the world a favor. Soon's he drops me, blow his fucking head off," Blair ordered, his voice rising to a vicious shout. "Splatter his brains all over the damned place!"

Jim blinked. What the hell? Bloodthirsty wasn't usually Sandburg's style, not even in the worst of circumstances - though he had to admit, they'd never been in anything quite this bad before. But the calm in Blair's eyes belied the hysterical shout. Comprehension hit, and Jim wanted to kick himself for not picking up the gambit sooner.

One thing to talk about dying; another to imagine your head getting blown apart.

It was dangerous. But it just might work.

Outside, he heard the wailing patrol cars, brakes screeching to a stop; doors slamming as the cops got into position. The SWAT guys couldn't be far behind.

"I hear you, and you're right, Chief," he agreed, allowing his loathing for the creep show on his face and resonate in the empty, cold tone of his voice. "I promise you, Blair, he's going straight to hell." Once again, Jim brought his left hand up to steady his weapon and, his heart in his throat, took a deliberate step to the side, forcing the killer to shift his stance, putting him off-balance.

"This is the Cascade Police!" a voice boomed through a megaphone. "You're surrounded. Come out with your hands up!"

Jim could see that the noise, the confusion, the escalating threat were getting to the perp. Fear flooded the junkie's eyes and he paled with desperation. "Don't move!" he screamed, his voice shrill. "I'll kill him. I swear I'll kill him!"

Jim's gaze narrowed. "Yeah, I know," he agreed with bleak, determined resignation. "But before he hits the floor, I'll put a bullet between your eyes."

His fists clenched, Blair's arms bent at the elbows, coming up into position. Wild hope and expectation filled his eyes as they slid to the side, trying to see the weapon pressed against his skull. "You hear that! He's gonna kill you, you moron!" he yelled, crowing in satisfaction. "No way can you stop him. Not if you shoot me first, you stupid son of a bitch!"

Jim saw the perp's eyes flicker between him and Blair, and he went still inside, completely focused. He'd only get one chance.

And then, with breathtaking speed, the weapon shifted away from Blair as the killer swung it around on Jim. As soon as the barrel was clear of his head, Blair jammed his elbows back into the guy's gut. The arm around his throat loosened and he threw himself to the side, stomping on the guy's instep as he pushed away. The perp yelped in surprise, his aim going wild as he fired.

Even as Blair dove to the side, Jim pulled the trigger and winced at the deafening double blasts that filled the air.

The killer shrieked in agony as the bullet tore through his shoulder and his gun went flying from his hand. Blair was on his knees, scrambling away, out of reach.

Jim lunged forward, putting himself between the perp and Blair. "On the ground, face down," he commanded, his voice ringing with deadly authority. "NOW!"

Terrified, holding his damaged arm, the killer dropped to his knees. Tears were spilling from his eyes. "Don't," he begged piteously. "Don't kill me."

"Don't tempt me. On your face!" Jim ordered, his ruthless tone betraying his hope the guy would pull something so he could shoot him again.

Panting in fear, hurrying to comply, the perp eased himself down until his massive bulk was flat on the floor.

"CLEAR!" Jim roared for the benefit of the cops outside. The last thing he needed was for them to start lobbing tear gas into the place. "ALL CLEAR!" Swiftly, he dropped down, pressing a knee into the big man's back. Grabbing the injured arm, he yanked it back mercilessly, eliciting a howl of pain and protest, not that he cared a damn. Holstering his weapon, he pulled his cuffs off his belt, and secured one meaty wrist and then the other.

Panting now, reaction setting in, Jim stood away and turned to check on his partner. Blair was clutching his bruised throat with one hand, rasping for breath and, with a grip on the counter above him, pulling himself to his feet.

Keeping the perp in view in case the guy still had some fight left in him, Jim hooked a hand under Blair's elbow and helped lever him up. "You okay?" he demanded with a fast, assessing glance.

Pale, breathing hard, Blair gave him a jerky nod. "Yeah," he gasped, hoarse and sounding shaky. "Thanks to you."

Feeling none too steady himself, Jim patted him on the shoulder. "Take a minute. Catch your breath," he murmured, "while I call in the cavalry."

Blair swallowed and winced, his throat obviously sore.

Jim moved past him, yelling, "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. I'm coming out." Only then did he pull the door open and wave the uniforms inside.

In seconds, several cops filled the small convenience store. "Read him his rights and get him out of here," Jim ordered with a gesture at the big man. Two patrol officers nodded smartly and moved past, to haul the guy to his feet. The perp cursed and snarled in pain.

Another uniform reported to Jim, "Man outside called it in, Detective. Said you saved his little girl. She said that another man shouted something and pushed a big, scary man away from her. Could you tell me what happened here?"

Gesturing at the killer, Jim replied, "Goliath over there apparently shot the store clerk before we stopped for gas. While I filled the tank, my partner, here, Blair Sandburg, walked right into it." He glanced at Blair, who shrugged and nodded. "Blair got between him and the little girl. By the time I got in here, the perp had an arm around Sandburg's throat and was pressing a gun against his head, holding him hostage." Jim heaved a breath. "Blair distracted him and look, we'll fill out the paperwork later. Charge him with murder one, attempted armed robbery, aggravated assault, threat to commit bodily harm and I'll figure out the rest later."

Nodding agreeably, the cop looked at Sandburg. "You need an ambulance?"

Blair shook his head. "No, 'm fine," he croaked. "Thanks."

Jim rolled his eyes. Fine? Not hardly. His stomach felt queasy at how close it had been, and he rubbed his hands together to hide the uneasy shakiness he could still feel. Residual anger trembled along his nerve endings, pulsed in the headache growing behind his eyes, and tightened in his chest - along with anxious concern. Blair's wheezing pants weren't getting any better; if anything, Jim thought he heard minute changes that suggested just the opposite. They weren't out of the woods yet. With more gruff force than he intended, he grabbed Blair's arm to walk him outside. "Secure the crime scene and call the coroner. I'll take Sandburg to the hospital to get him checked out," he told the cop, who nodded again and turned away.

"'m fine," Blair insisted again, as soon as they were outside. Jim thought his assertion might be more convincing if his voice didn't sound broken, and if he wasn't still white as a sheet and quaking like a leaf.

"Uh huh, right," he growled as he continued pulling Blair toward the truck. "But let's let a competent professional make sure of that. Your larynx might have been damaged. If your throat swells too much, you could still be in big trouble."

Blair gave him a startled look and didn't argue any further.

Ben Friedman, Chrissy in tow, rushed over from their car, getting between Jim and the truck, and forcing him to stop their forward momentum. Clamping down on his urge to push the man out of the way, Jim paused. "Mr. Friedman, thank you for your help. If you wouldn't mind waiting a little while longer, one of the officers will take your statement."

Chrissy let go of her father's hand and ran to Blair. Clutching his leg, she looked up at him, adoration shining in her eyes. "You're brave," she told him solemnly. "You pushed that mean man away from me. Did he hurt you?"

"No, sweetie," Blair rasped as he dropped to one knee and gave her a quick hug. "Everything's okay now. My friend, Jim, saved you and me both."

She transferred her gaze to Jim, her dark brown eyes studying him warily. "I was scared," she whispered. "You had a big gun, too."

"Detective Ellison is a policeman, honey," her father assured her. "He he rescued you." Turning to Jim, he held out his hand. "And for that, I'll never be able to thank you enough."

Uncomfortable with the praise, Jim shook the man's hand to be polite. "Just doing my job, Mr. Friedman. But Chrissy's right. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. He's the one who risked his life to keep the guy inside away from your daughter."

Blair flushed as he stood, waving his hands as if denying the tribute. Friedman immediately shook his hand, too, with exuberant enthusiasm. "Mr. Sandburg. Thank you. Thank you."

"'S'okay," Blair replied, his voice huskier than it had been just a moment before. "Just glad to help."

"If you'll excuse us, I have to get Blair to the hospital," Jim intervened, anxious to be on their way but exercising massive restraint in an effort to remain at least minimally courteous. The man was still very shook up, and the little girl was already afraid of him. He didn't want to upset either of them any more than they already were, but he had to get Blair to a doctor. The only reason he wasn't waiting for an ambulance was that he wasn't sure how much time they had if Sandburg's throat continued swelling from the damage done to it - and if the edema got too bad .

"Were you hurt?" Friedman asked, still standing in their way and studying Blair with concern.

Blair shook his head but, done with the discussion, Jim snapped, "I'm sorry, we have to go," and hustled Blair around them.

"Jim!" Blair protested, sounding breathy. "Stop shoving me!"

More worried than he wanted to admit, anxiety making him harsh, he pushed Blair against the side of the truck and gripped his arms to hold him there. "Do you have any idea of how close you came to being killed in there?" he seethed, keeping his voice low, not wanting Friedman or the other cops standing around to hear. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Huh? Daring that bastard to shoot you? God damn it, Sandburg. He could have choked you out, or snapped your neck like a twig to shut you up! His finger was tightening on the damned trigger!"

Blair's face lost all trace of color and he trembled under Jim's hands. "Yeah," he replied hollowly, "I know." His gaze skittered away and then back. "He was going to do it, Jim. There wasn't anything to lose by trying. I knew you were afraid to shoot while that that gun was pressed to my head. I had to try, man. I had to."

Jim closed his eyes and swallowed hard to contain the emotions that were running riot, threatening to unman him. He jerked Blair toward him and embraced him in a hard hug. "You scared the hell out of me," he grated. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. "Thank God it worked, Chief," he murmured, his voice thick. "Chrissy's right. You were very brave in there."

Blair leaned into him, holding him hard, as if suddenly afraid to let go. His breathing was growing more labored. Jim's heart clenched, and he pulled away. "C'mon. You don't sound good."

Blair allowed Jim to hasten him into the truck, supporting him inside and then slamming the door shut before he ran around the hood to the other side. Blair was buckling his seatbelt when Jim jumped in and started up the engine.

"Why're you so worried?" Blair asked, his voice growing fainter. He reached up to touch his throat gingerly and visibly struggled to swallow.

Jim flipped on his siren and planted the portable emergency flashing light on the dash before wheeling out of the lot. Speeding down the boulevard, he fought for calm as he explained, "If your throat swells too much, you won't be able to breathe."

"Oh." Blair slumped back against the seat. "Not good."

"Not good at all, Chief," Jim agreed, his tone grim.

He swerved around vehicles that were too slow to get out of his way, and floored the accelerator. Five very tense minutes later, while Blair's breathing grew ever raspier and the skin around his mouth and nose started turning grayish blue, Jim roared into the Emergency driveway and up to the entrance. Blair fumbled with his seatbelt and Jim leapt out of the truck. Looking shaky, Blair was sliding out as he came around the side.

Jim looped a supportive arm around him but, when Blair gasped in desperation as if he couldn't get enough air - his heart rate sky-rocketing - and he stumbled, Jim scooped him up and raced inside.

"I need help here!" he shouted, drawing a flurry of nurses and orderlies.

Moments later, he was laying Blair on a stretcher in an examining room and a nurse was covering his friend's face with an oxygen mask, while another was unbuttoning Sandburg's shirt and helping him get it off.

The duty doctor rushed into the room. Jim hastily introduced himself and explained what had happened, adding the facts that Blair was his partner and roommate. The information wasn't strictly necessary, but he wanted her to know the kid meant a whole lot more to him than a crime victim he'd brought in from the scene.

Her brow quirked as she looked at Blair and back again; and he didn't give a damn about the speculation in her eyes or what she thought he meant. He loved the kid, right? Right. And spouses got more latitude, more consideration than friends; that's just the way it was. A pragmatist, Jim figured whatever worked, so long as he was allowed to stay without a fight.

Nodding in understanding, the woman briskly moved past him and told the orderly to bring ice chips and a cold gel pack. Jim stood to the side, watching her examine Blair's bruised throat, the tide of fearful anxiety he'd been holding off rising until he thought he might explode. He fisted his hands and crossed his arms as he monitored Blair's heart rate and respirations. The oxygen seemed to be helping, thank God. Blair's color was better and his breathing seemed a bit easier. But then Jim saw him start to shiver uncontrollably.

"He's cold, shocky," he said, knowing he was telling the doctor her job, but unable to stop himself. "Reaction is hitting him."

She nodded and glanced at a nurse, who grabbed a blanket from a supply shelf, and layered it over Blair. The doctor ordered an intravenous drip be started with glucose and normal saline. Turning to another nurse, she said, "15ccs of valium, IM." While one nurse got the IV started and the other prepared the syringe, she asked Blair, "How're you doing? The oxygen helping any?"

He nodded. "Yeah," he whispered and winced. "Hurts, though."

The orderly returned and handed her the gel pack and a bowl of ice chips.

"I bet it does," she replied sympathetically as she held the malleable pack against his neck. "Here, suck on some of these ice chips while I explain what's going to happen next - the cold will help soothe your throat and slow the swelling." When Blair popped some ice into his mouth, she went on, "I have to examine your throat and that's going to be uncomfortable. So we're going to give you a shot, to help you relax. And then I'm going to freeze the membranes of your throat with a local anesthetic. After that, I'll insert a metal scope into your mouth and throat, to see what's going on in there. I need you to stay calm, and to relax as much as possible, okay? We'll substitute the mask for a nasal cannula in minute, so you'll still be getting extra oxygen."

Blair nodded. "Okay," he agreed, his voice small, scared, his respirations increasingly thin and reedy. Despite the blanket, he was shivering violently, but Jim couldn't tell if the shaking was caused by shock or muscular convulsions because of oxygen deprivation - maybe even both.

Jim swallowed and rubbed his mouth, wished to hell there was something he could do. Blair jumped a bit when first one needle was inserted into a vein in his hand, and another almost simultaneously was thrust into his upper arm.

"Detective," the doctor called, turning to him. "Maybe you could lend a hand. Literally."

"Sure," he agreed, stepping forward, relieved to not be entirely useless.

"Blair, I want you to hold onto your partner's hand and squeeze as hard as you want. Whatever it takes to keep you from resisting the procedure."

Blair reached out and Jim took his hand, his grip firm but gentle. "You're going to be okay, Chief," he offered, hoping to hell it was true. Blair's gaze searched his, and his trembling fingers tightened around Jim's.

"Your partner is right," the doctor said as she soaked squares of gauze in a bitter smelling solution and, folding them into small bundles, attached them to long, thin forceps. "If your throat keeps closing, we have options for getting oxygen into your lungs until it heals." She looked up and smiled. "Feels scary when it's hard to breathe, but you will be fine."

Blair gave her a tight nod, but he kept holding onto Jim's hand as if his life depended upon never losing contact. Jim laid a palm on his forehead. "You heard the doctor, Chief. Try to relax," he murmured.

Blair's gaze swung back to his. "You see the length of those forceps, Jim?" he husked, his voice and breathing wispy. "Would you relax?" And then his smile appeared, a bit wobbly, but not a bad effort, all things considered. Jim decided he'd give the kid points for style and gallantry under duress, and smiled back.

A nurse raised the head of the stretcher, and Blair grabbed the gel pack, to hold it against his neck. The doctor told Blair to open his mouth as wide as he could. For what seemed an eternity to Jim, she held one of the soaked sponges after another against the inside of Blair's mouth and throat. More than once, Blair's grip nearly cut off the circulation in his hand as the kid tried his best not to gag. Jim didn't know if it was just his hearing or not, but the air was wheezing loudly through Blair's throat and the oxygen no longer seemed to be helping much. God, he hated to see Sandburg suffer like this. Hated being helpless to make things better.

"Okay," the doctor said as she stepped back and nodded to a nurse who lowered the bed. "You're doing really great, Blair. Now I'm going to do the examination. I'll be tilting your head back and inserting this instrument down your throat." She held up a metal instrument that Jim recognized as the one used to clear the airway for intubation, and he winced in sympathy. "Don't worry if your throat feels so tight you're not sure how this blade-like part will fit," she was saying. "I won't force it. Depending on what I see, I may insert a tube to keep your airway open. You ready?"

"Go for it," Blair told her, the words barely audible.

The doctor placed a stool at the head of the stretcher and sat down. "Open wide." Firmly, she gripped his jaw, tilted his head back, and began to insert the instrument.

Jim wanted to watch, he really did. He felt like a first-class wuss when he turned his face away, but it was killing him to see her shove that thing down Blair's throat; to hear his partner struggle not to choke and gag, while he clutched Jim's hand tight. God, it was torture. If he could get his hands on the man who'd done this right now, he was pretty sure he'd kill the bastard.

How the hell long did this have to take!

"Looks a lot better than it probably feels, Blair," she murmured. Nodding, she eased the instrument out of his mouth and patted his cheek. "You did really, really good. I know it's one of the worst sensations in the world." Putting the instrument on the tray positioned beside her, she stood and moved back to his side so Blair could see her more easily. A nurse raised the head of the bed and replaced the oxygen mask on his face.

Poor kid's eyes had teared up and he was sniffing, swiping at his eyes. Jim lightly squeezed his arm, and Blair gave him a quick look of gratitude.

The doctor glanced at him and then looked down at Blair. "Your throat is definitely badly bruised and swollen, but I don't think it's going to get any worse. So we'll leave you breathing on your own, at least for now. We're going to keep you here for a couple more hours, to see how you do. I want you to keep sucking on those ice chips and, when they're gone, we'll bring you more. That's the best thing you can do right now to help the swelling go down. Try not to do any talking - that would only aggravate your larynx. Okay?"

Blair nodded and looked immensely relieved not to have to have a tube pushed down his throat.

She turned to Jim. "Stay with him. If his breathing becomes any worse than it is now, if he feels any more distress, let a nurse know immediately."

She patted Blair's shoulder and turned away. In the blink of an eye, the medical team had gone, leaving them alone.

Jim drew the stool the doctor had been sitting on around to the side of the bed, and slumped down on it. Blair was still gripping his hand like there was no tomorrow. "Well, that didn't look like fun," he said.

Blair rolled his eyes and grimaced.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Jim sighed and slipped a chip of ice into his partner's mouth. Looking like he'd been through a battle worse than the one earlier that evening, Blair closed his eyes. Gradually, the tightness in his shoulders and the shivering eased and his grip loosened on Jim's hand. But Jim kept holding on anyway; for Blair, and for himself, too.

The door to the corridor opened and Simon poked his head in, bringing Jim back to his feet. When Banks looked at Blair, he frowned in heavy concern. "He asleep?" he asked in a quiet rumble as he came in.

Blair opened his eyes and gave Simon a wan smile, accepted another ice chip, and closed his eyes again.

"No," Jim replied and tried to smile. "Just resting."

"The doctor said he's going to be okay," Simon said. Blair squinted at him in annoyance, and he retorted with faint asperity, "Okay, 'you're' going to be okay. I thought, since you're supposed to be resting - and not talking - that I'd carry out this conversation with Jim."

Blair quirked a small grin, winked, and again closed his eyes.

"Yeah," Jim replied, amused and reassured by Blair's attempt at humor. Though the kid relied heavily on verbal communication, he could be pretty expressive without words when he had to be - well, his non-verbals spoke volumes most of the time, but Jim wasn't sure Blair knew that. "If he's okay in a couple hours, we can probably go home."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it. Jim, we've got enough to charge the perp without you guys having to worry about making a statement or putting in a report tonight. Don't worry about leaving the paperwork until tomorrow. They just took him up to surgery, to remove the bullet from his shoulder."

Jim nodded; he'd heard the bastard being brought in and treated while it was happening; he just hadn't cared enough to pay any attention to what was going on in the nearby room. Pulling out his weapon, he handed it to Simon, who took it, unconsciously checked that the safety was on, and put it in his pocket. Jim gave him a wry look but didn't really mind; surrendering the weapon was standard procedure in a shooting, pending the ballistics test and IA's investigation.

"It's a righteous shoot," Simon said with a shrug. "There was already one DB and Friedman's statement couldn't say enough good about the two of you. Officer Wilkinson's report gives enough to know the killer was holding Blair hostage. IA will meet with you tomorrow, but that's just procedure."

"I know," Jim agreed with a shrug. "Thanks for coming down here tonight."

Simon smiled wearily. "One of my men gets hurt, where else am I going to be?"

Jim appreciated Simon's words and the world of meaning underneath. Glancing at his partner, seeing healthy color suffuse Blair's cheeks and the kid's thin-lipped smile, he could tell Blair did, too.

"Well, it's getting late and I think I'll head out. If things change, if they decide to keep Blair overnight, let me know, okay?"

"I will," Jim assured him.

When Simon left, he sagged back down on the stool. God, he felt tired all of a sudden. When he lifted his head, he saw Blair studying him, concern shadowing those expressive eyes. "I'm okay," he said. "Just been a long day, you know?"

Blair nodded slowly and squeezed his hand reassuringly.

"Yeah, I know, Chief. Everything's fine." Looking away, remembering those harrowing minutes, he shook his head. Things could have turned out a lot worse. Blowing a long breath, he said again, "Everything's just fine." Turning back to Blair, he smiled and slipped another chip of ice into his partner's mouth.

When Blair dozed off, Jim wasn't surprised. Between the valium and the general exhaustion that followed on the heels of such immensely stressful experiences, it was a wonder the kid had lasted as long as he had before crashing. Settling the still cold gel pack against Blair's throat, he listened to his partner's breathing and decided it didn't sound any worse. Maybe even a little better.

Alone for the first time since the whole mess had erupted, Jim felt the rigorous control he'd held on his emotions slipping. He stood and moved to the wall, leaned back against the cool tile. Then he slid down to the floor, crossed his arms over his raised knees and bowed his head. Pressing his eyelids closed against the burn, he covered his mouth with his hand. Swallowing hard against the turbulent nausea in his gut, he rode out the shakes that hit like a Mac truck.

God, it had been too fucking close this time. Could have gone either way. Blair could be .

Sobbing for breath, he clamped down on his imagination, refusing to go there, not needing those images in his head. He forced himself to breathe deeply and let it go, to just let it go. Sandburg was okay. The little girl was safe and sound at home. The perp was in custody. It was done. Finished. Everything was fine.

But, dammit, it had been too near a thing. Scrubbing his face, he fervently hoped he'd never have to live through terrible minutes like that again.

Despite the icy chill still lodged in his core, he pushed himself up off the floor and returned to his seat by Blair's side. Taking his partner's hand, he watched Blair sleep and listened to the sweet sound of his breathing. Every once in a while, he slipped another bit of frozen water between Blair's lax lips, and maintained vigilance to ensure his partner didn't choke as the liquid melted into his throat.

An hour later, the doctor pronounced his partner good to go, and Jim steadied Blair on the way out to the truck.

He'd just started the ignition when he heard Blair rasp, "Ice cream?"

Leaning back against the seat, he looked over at his partner. The hopeful lift of the brows spoke volumes.

And for the first time since it had all blown up, Jim remembered why Blair had gone into the damned store in the first place.

He'd wanted to pick up some ice cream for dessert that night.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me here," he groaned, but Blair just opened those baby blues wider, his whole expression imploring. Jim nearly looked away, nearly didn't catch it, but then he saw the worried shadows in those dark depths, and he sighed. The kid had been through hell and still couldn't swallow without wincing, but Blair was worried - about him. Wanted to be sure he was really okay. "Get back up on the horse, huh?" Jim muttered.

Watching him intently, Blair nodded as he reached out to grip Jim's arm.

Quirking a weary, wry smile, Jim shrugged. "Sure, why not? Bet ice cream would feel great on that throat."

Blair squeezed his arm and drew away, settling in his seat. And the wide beautiful smile of approval and delight that Blair gave him warmed him clear through, melting the last of the deep chill that lurked inside.

"You're something else, Sandburg," Jim chuckled as he drove out to the street.

"So're you, man," Blair croaked.

"No talking, Chief," he scolded. Looking all innocent, Blair lifted his hands for peace. But his impish grin and the glint of fond teasing in his dancing eyes got Jim laughing again.

I love you, too, Chief, he thought, feeling so good he couldn't help but grin as he drove toward the convenience store on the way home. I love you, too.

Finis

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