Rating: PG

Category: drama

Warnings: For those who need warnings, click here.

Author's Note: I was looking at my site one day, and realized I hadn't posted any stories in the year 2000. I went yikes and scrambled to find a story idea I could put together in under a month. I also wanted something to launch the re-design of my site. This is what I came up with. Birthed, fully formed, on the way back from my folks' one weekend. Hope you like it.

Author Addendum: Since the initial posting of this story, there are now two others in this universe. They are: Reflections and Storm Changes

God's Answer

by KandaceK

12-29-2000
Edited, revised, and reposted: 2-13-2001

December 22, 10:00 AM

The nightmare started three days before Christmas. Jim and I were on the trail of Calvin Michaels and Juan Rodriguez. They were wanted in connection with a jewelry store heist where the store owner had been seriously hurt.

We knew the guys were dangerous; we just didn't know they were also desperate. We flushed them out of hiding and were immediately involved in a gun battle. Fortunately, or so I thought, they broke and ran. Jim and I chased them. They took a wrong turn or something, because the next thing I knew, we were pinned down by gunfire. The alley was a dead end.

I took up position behind some trashcans, covering Jim while he found cover behind some crates on the other side of the alley and slightly ahead of me. Between returning fire and keeping an eye on Jim, I called for backup. It was a few minutes before I realized there was only one perp firing at us. Where'd the other one go? I glanced around, trying to find the other man. I couldn't see him.

A bullet struck uncomfortably close to my head and I ducked lower, then looked around one of the trashcans and fired back. The bullet just missed the perp. For one brief moment the guy was vulnerable. Jim took the shot.

The gunfire stopped. You know what they say about silence being deafening. It's also eerie.

"You okay, Sandburg?" Jim asked as he stood up.

"Yeah. You?"

He nodded, and I sighed. Good.

We slowly stood, surveying the alley. The coast seemed clear. Jim and I approached the end of the alley where the perp had taken a stand behind some more crates. I held back a bit, watching my partner's back like I'd been taught.

"I don't hear a heartbeat," Jim said. He knelt and checked for a pulse, and shook his head. The perp was dead. I relaxed slightly, but not much.

"Jim, did you see where the other guy went?"

Jim started to shake his head, but stopped, looking up at the roof. I knew immediately that he'd spotted someone. I swung around and caught sight of our other suspect. The perp fired, and I shot back, ducking for cover. One of my very least favorite things about police work is handling guns, but to back up my partner, I'll use any weapon available. After that short burst, there was no more gunfire. I cautiously peeked up at the roof, and looked around. There was no sign of the suspect.

"Jim, did you get him?" I called. He didn't answer. "Jim?" I took one more survey of the rooftops, turned--and froze.

Jim was crumpled against the crates, only a few feet from the body of the first suspect. He looked totally stunned, and made no move to get up. "Sand--burg," he whispered.

That small sound was enough to break my paralysis. "Oh, God, Jim!" I ran and dropped to my knees beside him. He stared at me like he was memorizing my face. I couldn't stand it, and blurted something inane. "Jim, what's wrong? Are you hit?"

With a supreme effort, he lifted a bloody hand to my shoulder. His breath rattled when he spoke. "Good--partner. In--stincts--good. Finish--"

"Finish what, Jim?" I was starting to panic. This sounded too much like a dying man's last wish.

"Doc--tor--ate." I could barely understand the word. Goosebumps ran up my spine.

"Sure, Jim, I'll finish my doctorate. Some day. Right now, let's worry about the here and now. Okay? Don't give up, man. Don't you dare give up. I won't stand for it. Hear me?"

A tiny smile was the only response Jim gave. His eyes slid shut and he slumped. I barely managed to hang on to him and ease him to the ground. That's when I saw the quickly spreading blood-stain on his clothes. I fumbled for my phone and made the "Officer Down" call, requesting an ambulance. As I disconnected, I finally heard the sirens of our backup approaching. I sent up a silent prayer for them to hurry, and turned my whole attention to Jim.

My hands were shaking badly as I yanked up his sweater and shirt, looking for where he'd been hit. I found the entry point in his back, near his ribcage and close to his side. Blood was pouring from this small hole, but to my added horror there was another, more ragged hole in his back. I thought it was the exit wound.

I shrugged out of my coat, and ripped off my shirt. I had to stop the bleeding. I had to.

December 22, 12:00 PM

"Sandburg?"

I roused from my silent vigil by the window to see Simon approaching. I turned to meet him. His face was a mask of concern and worry. I tried to give him a smile, and failed.

"Have you heard anything?"

I shrugged. "He's been in surgery a little more than an hour. He coded once in the ambulance, and again in the ER. Other than that, I don't know anything."

I was surprised when Simon landed a hand on my shoulder, and squeezed it reassuringly. "Jim's tough. He'll be all right."

I closed my eyes. "God, I hope so, Simon." I met his gaze. "I keep going over it in my mind. I don't know what I should have done different. I knew the other suspect could be around, I was even watching for him. I stayed back while Jim checked the DB. I didn't see or hear anything until Jim spotted the guy up on the roof. Jim drew his gun when I was taking up position. Shots were fired, and I returned fire, but just like that, the guy vanished. The next thing I knew, Jim was sprawled on the ground, bleeding all over the place."

"It sounds like you did everything you were supposed to do, Blair."

"But it wasn't enough! Jim might die, because--"

"If you say 'because of you', Sandburg, so help me, I'll hit you."

I blinked.

"Sandburg, you did everything right. It sounds like Jim did everything right. Sometimes, a situation will go bad despite everything."

I slumped tiredly against the wall. "Yeah," I murmured. "Despite everything." I stared out the window for a long moment. "Did they catch Rodriguez?"

There was a heavy sigh and I looked at Simon.

"No. There was no trace of him having been on the roof. We've got an APB out on him now. Hopefully we'll have him picked up soon."

Damn. The guy couldn't have just vanished. "As soon as I find out about Jim, I'll come down and make my report."

"Tomorrow's soon enough for that, Sandburg."

"No," I snapped. "I want it out of the way so I can help track down Rodriguez."

Simon scowled, but said nothing.

I went back to watching the people of Cascade go about their business outside. Simon stood next to me for a while. Eventually he took a seat in one of the chairs and picked up a magazine. After a while he set it down and got up. He paced, and stood, and sat. He called the station for a report, and brought coffee for both of us. I'd never known him to be so fidgety. I just stood by the window, staring.

December 22, 4:30 PM

Simon tapped my arm and I turned to see a weary-looking doctor in scrubs standing in the doorway. We went to him instead of making him come to us.

"Jim?" I asked.

The doctor toyed with the surgical cap in his hands. "He made it through surgery."

"But?" I held my breath, clenching my fists. I prayed that the doctor wasn't going to say what I thought he was.

"He's lost a lot of blood and we're fighting to keep him stable. Now, he's in a coma."

A coma. Better than dead, at least. I could take another breath. Beside me I heard Simon release his own breath. Gee, after all this time, we're more alike than I'd thought. I forced my attention back to the doctor.

"The bullet entered just below the last rib on his right side, nicked the lung and creased his liver before it shattered a vertebra in his lower back. Bone fragments lacerated his intestines and one of his kidneys. The path of the bullet did further damage to his intestines before it lodged in his pelvis on the left side.

"We're pretty sure we found and repaired all the damage, and we've got him on a massive dose of antibiotics to combat the peritonitis, but things are definitely touch and go right now."

I stared at the doctor dumbly. Shattered vertebra? Bone fragments? Peritonitis? I opened my mouth to say something, and nothing came out. I swallowed, and tried again, with more success.

"What are his chances?" There, that was said calmly enough.

The doctor gave me a compassionate look. "Frankly, I didn't expect him to make it through surgery. That he did speaks to his overall health before this. If we can keep him stable through the night, we'll reassess his condition in the morning."

I frowned. That didn't sound too reassuring. I let it go.

"You said something about his back. Is he--Will he be--?"

"The spinal cord was completely severed just below the waist. If he survives and recovers, he will be paralyzed from the waist down. I'm sorry."

My knees threatened to buckle. Paralyzed? Jim? Dear God. That other wound on his back must've been from the blown out vertebra. I gulped. What would Jim do? What would we do? Didn't matter. We'd figure something out. What mattered at the moment was keeping him breathing. Please, God, let him keep breathing.

"Can I see him?"

"Yes, of course. Someone will come get you in a few minutes."

I nodded gratefully.

"Thank you," Simon murmured beside me.

About twenty minutes later a nurse came by and showed us to Jim's room. Simon and I stood outside his observation window for an eternity. Jim looked so pale. It was unnerving. He was practically buried under tubes and wires hooking him up to various monitors and machines.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't so much the tubes and wires and machinery that scared me. It was the straps holding him immobile in bed. His spine was shattered. He'd never walk again.

I shivered. Simon's hand squeezed my shoulder. I glanced at him, nodded, and stepped into the room. The first thing I noticed was the relative quiet. Despite all the monitors and machinery, the only noise came from the ventilator. Any alarms would sound at the nurses' station, not in the room. That was one less thing I had to worry about, I guess. I didn't have to tell them about Jim's sensitive ears.

I went over to him, unable to take my eyes off his pale face. Tentatively, I took hold of one of his hands.

"Don't go, Jim," I whispered. "I'll miss you too much."

Simon came to stand on the other side of the bed. He didn't say anything, just watched Jim sleep or whatever it was he was doing. Simon reached out and laid a hand over Jim's. "Get well, Jim," he said quietly. Moments later, he left.

I stayed a while longer.

Finally, I said, "I'll be back later, Jim. I have to go fill out the incident report. Rodriguez is still loose, too, and I want to help find him. Hang in there, man."

I stared at him for a long moment, then I couldn't help myself; I brushed his cheek with my fingers. Whether it was a blessing or for reassurance, I don't know.

I whispered, "Please, stay, Sentinel."

I turned and hurried out, hoping he'd still be there when I came back.

December 23, 7:00 AM

I roused when a nurse, Helen, shook my shoulder. I blinked away the cobwebs and sat up, yawning. It had been a rough night. Not for Jim, for me. I'd spent the night in Jim's hospital room in one of those reclining vinyl thingies. It wasn't too uncomfortable, but it was cold. I never really slept for fear Jim would slip away from me when I wasn't looking, but other than a little excitement around midnight when Jim's heart started throwing PVCs and his temperature spiked, it was uneventful. They changed his medication and things settled down again. Thank you, God, he's still breathing.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

"Sorry, Helen. I was woolgathering. What'd you need?"

"Captain Banks is on the phone for you. You can take it at the nurses' station."

"Oh. Okay. Thanks." I levered myself to my feet, paused long enough to squeeze Jim's hand, then went to see what news our captain had.

"Good morning, Simon."

"Is it?"

I blinked, trying to think through Simon's seeming non-sequitur. "Yeah, Simon, it's a good morning. Jim's still here."

"Good. I need you to come down to the station, as soon as you can."

"Why, what's up? Did they catch Rodriguez?"

"No, he's still at large. I need to go over yesterday's incident report with you."

"Okay, Simon. Let me run by the loft, grab a shower and a clean set of clothes, and I'll see you in about an hour."

"Sounds good. Tell Jim to hang in there."

"I will." I hung up and stood at the nurses' station for a moment. There was something puzzling about Simon's phone call. He sounded serious. The "something wrong" serious, not his usual, "I'm the captain" serious. And I didn't think it was his concern over Jim, either. I shrugged and went back to Jim's room to tell him where I was going and that I'd be back.

December 23, 8:40 AM

So it was a little more than an hour after I talked with Simon. He'd understand. When I walked into the bullpen all eyes fastened on me. The looks of sympathy and concern were almost comical, but I knew they were sincere.

"Sandy, how is he?" Megan asked the question the others were afraid to.

"No change. He's still in a coma."

"He'll make it, Sandburg."

"Yeah. Ellison's tough, he'll pull through."

"Hang in there, Sandy."

"We're all praying for him."

I dredged up a smile for their well wishes, and headed to Simon's office. The captain was leaning against the doorway. He had witnessed the little coffee-clatch, but didn't comment. He waited until I'd gone into his office, then followed, pulling the door shut behind him.

There was another man already there. I didn't like the look of him. He was about Jim's height, stick-thin, and had black hair and a pencil mustache. His hazel eyes were less than friendly.

"Thank you for coming in, Blair. This is Mark Howard with Internal Affairs." Simon gestured to one of the chairs. "Please, have a seat."

For the moment I ignored the I.A. guy, and spoke to Simon as I sat down. "You said you wanted to go over my report. Is there a problem with it, Simon?"

Simon moved to his coffee pot and filled two mugs. I took the one he offered me.

"Not to my knowledge, no, but I.A. apparently has questioned it."

"Why?" I looked at Howard.

"Detective Sandburg, are you sure there was a second shooter in that alley?"

"Am I sure? Of course I'm sure! What's that supposed to mean?"

"There were no traces of anybody up on that roof. No shell casings, no scuff marks, no fibers, nothing."

"He was there. My partner spotted him. I saw him. Were we both shooting at a phantom?"

"Detective, you are aware that Detective Ellison was shot in the back?"

"It was more his side than his back, but yes."

"If he was shooting at the suspect, how do you account for the location of the entry wound?"

I frowned. I didn't like where I thought this was heading.

"The guy was up on the roof, above me. Jim was a little in front of me. He would have had to turn to get at the guy."

"Did Detective Ellison get a shot off?"

"I heard two shots almost simultaneously, just before I fired. I'm sure one of them was Jim's."

"Which one? The first one? The second one? Or could it possibly have been the third one? Or maybe there were four shots, not three?"

"What are you fishing for, Howard? I told you what went down. It's in my report, exactly as I remember it."

"Here's the way I see it. I don't think there was a second shooter at all. I think the second suspect, if there was one, slipped away during the commotion with his partner and got clean away. In the adrenaline rush after the firefight with the first suspect, I think you were jumping at shadows, misinterpreted Detective Ellison's movements and accidentally shot your partner."

"What? That's bullshit! I would never shoot Jim!"

"Probably not intentionally. There were seven rounds missing from Ellison's gun. We recovered seven slugs. Seven shots fired, seven rounds."

I glanced at Simon in confusion. "Okay, so?"

"Not one of those slugs had the trajectory necessary to fire up at the roof."

The import of that didn't escape me. It meant that Jim was shot before he could get his weapon aimed or before I got a shot off. Damn! Jim's gun must have gone off when he was hit. I wasn't liking the look this I.A. guy was giving me.

"You think I shot my partner and made up the second shooter to cover my ass? No way! If I'd shot Jim, I'd sure as hell own up to it! I take responsibility for my actions, I wouldn't lie about something like this." I mentally cringed. Great. I was sure Howard would bring up the issue of my diss any second.

He didn't, much to my relief. Instead, he smiled. I suppressed a shiver. "That may be, Detective, but the fact remains, there is no evidence to support your claim of a second shooter."

"What about the bullet the doctors dug out of Jim? It couldn't have come from my gun."

"Ah, yes, the bullet. Unfortunately, it's too deformed to get a ballistics match on. About all we can tell is that it was probably a 9 mil."

Damn. Probably the most common ammunition around next to a .22.

"What about the angle of entry? I'm shorter than Jim, and the bullet entered at a steep downward angle."

"He could have been kneeling."

I clenched my jaw, glaring at the smug jerk. "He wasn't."

"So you say."

Fuming, I took a very deliberate breath, and I stood up. I looked at Simon. "I've got a job to do, Captain. If I'm not on suspension or anything, I think I'll get back to it."

Simon waved me out. "Go on," he said quietly.

I jerked my head, glared at Howard, and made for the door. Just before I left, Howard made one last comment.

"Detective Sandburg, if I find out you have lied about this incident, your career in law-enforcement will be over. Think about it."

I paused with my hand on the door, but I didn't look back. Quietly, carefully, I pulled Simon's door shut behind me. I took a deep breath, then made a beeline for the stairs, my goal the gym in the basement. I was furious, and I had to work off some steam. No way, no how did I shoot Jim. Not even in my visions. I stumbled, and had to grab for the railing before I took a header.

Where had that come from? Was I harboring some unprocessed anger at Jim for the Barnes Business? Did I shoot my partner, and sublimate the fact with a story about a second shooter? No! Jim and I worked that out even before the Diss Disaster. We were cool with each other. No more anger, hidden or otherwise. I cast a glance back up the stairs. I had a new reason to dislike that I.A. jerk. He tried messing with my head. Well, it wasn't going to happen again. Jim and I had learned our lessons--the hard way. Even with all the nasty stuff that went down with the diss mess, Jim never even threatened to throw me out. He may not have been talking to me much at that point, but that was only because he was on the defensive. Everyone he'd ever been close to had betrayed him in one way or another. He'd let me in closer than anyone--ever--and he was sure it was now my turn to betray him. He'd found out different.

It took me a while, and I'm ashamed to admit how long it took for me to figure it out, but then, Jim has been my first experience with true friendship. My first slip on the Ellison Trust Scale was when I thought about going to Borneo for a year, which would have meant abandoning the Sentinel Project--abandoning Jim--and we'd barely begun. Oh boy, all the reassurances and "proofs of friendship" in the world couldn't erase that first slip. I think from then on Jim was just waiting for the ax to fall, for me to go on to some new project and leave him to fend for himself. "So long, it was nice knowin' ya. Thanks for the paper, man." It's so true that you don't know what you have until you lose it, or almost do.

The diss fiasco opened both our eyes--wide. I realized that I was losing Jim as a friend because I missed the signs that Jim saw me like he saw his other "friends": a potential betrayer. After the press conference, I think Jim was stunned to realize just how far I was willing to go to prove my loyalty and friendship. At the hospital, when he told me I was the best partner he could have ever asked for, I heard the words he was really saying. He was saying no one had ever done anything like that for him, made a sacrifice like that, just to keep him safe.

We'd weathered that storm, and our friendship, not to mention our partnership, was stronger than ever. Nope, there was no way I shot my partner, and I resented the implication that I could have.

There was only one thing I could do to get I.A. off my back and out of Simon's hair. I had to find Rodriguez and find the evidence to prove he'd been on that roof.

I breezed through the locker room doors and went to my locker. I quickly changed into my running gear and hit the indoor track. Jim would take out his frustration on a punching bag, or pump iron; me, I meditate or run. Everyone thinks I have this bottomless pit of energy. Well, they're right--mostly. I usually prefer to meditate and disperse the excess that way, but if I'm just too keyed up, I have to run. It's the only other way to clear my head. Jim was surprised to find that out about me, but I think it pleased him. It meant we had a running partner if we wanted one. A physical activity to do together, other than camping.

Five miles later I was beginning to think clearly again. Another lap, and I began to plan what I needed to do to track down Rodriguez. I dropped to a walk and took another lap to cool down. Simon was waiting when I finished.

"Simon."

"Sandburg."

I cocked an eyebrow at him.

"I don't know why I.A. questioned your incident report."

I shrugged. "It doesn't matter, Simon. I know Jim saw someone. I know who I saw. I didn't shoot Jim. The so-called 'case' wouldn't stand up to the review board, and I think Howard knows it. He was just trying to rattle my cage."

"Yes, he was. Be careful of him, Blair. He's got an ax to grind, and you're the wheel."

I snorted. "Why am I not surprised? Let me guess, he tried for an assignment in Major Crime and was turned down because I came on board?"

"You're only partly right. Howard did try for a spot in Major Crime a couple of years ago, but I turned him down. Not because of you. I felt then what I feel now: he doesn't have what it takes to be a detective in my unit."

As the meaning behind that sank in, I began to smile. "Thanks, Simon."

One corner of Simon's mouth quirked up. He nodded, patted my shoulder, and left. He paused just before leaving the gym, looking back at me. "Find him, Sandburg."

I nodded sharply, and headed for the locker room. I had a suspect to find.

December 23, 3:00 PM

I dropped the phone back on its hook and glanced up at the clock. Damn. I'd hoped to have some positive results by now. I wanted some good news to tell Jim when I went to see him. So far all I'd turned up was a big fat zero. I'd asked for a warrant to search Rodriguez's apartment, but it was denied because of insufficient grounds. Insufficient grounds? The guy shot my partner, and I can't get a warrant to search his house? Yeah, yeah, I have no evidence to prove the guy shot my partner; thus, no warrant.

"Hey Joel, have you got any word on the girlfriend, yet?"

"Sorry, Blair. Her roommate said she's out of town until tomorrow. Simon okayed surveillance, so we've got people watching her apartment, and Rodriguez's."

I nodded. "All right. I'm heading to the hospital. Let me know if you get anything, okay?"

"Sure, Blair. Tell Jim we're thinking about him."

"I will, thanks." I snagged my coat and hurried out. I hadn't heard from the hospital all day; I'd kept telling myself that was good news, but I wanted to know for myself.

When I reached Jim's room, I practically bumped into Jim's dad as he was leaving.

"Mr. Ellison! Steven!" I was surprised by their presence, and scared. This was the first time I'd ever known Jim's family to visit him in the hospital, and I wondered if they knew something I didn't.

"Mr. Sandburg, isn't it?"

I squelched the impending panic and held out my hand. "Yes. We met a couple of years ago. I'm Jim's partner. Please, call me Blair."

He took my offered hand while his aged eyes studied me. He looked old and tired--and grief-stricken.

My heart sped up. "How's Jim? He hasn't gotten worse, has he? I got called to the station early this morning and just managed to get away."

Mr. Ellison's face hardened, and I got the feeling I'd said something wrong.

"Were you with Jimmy when this happened?"

"Yes. We were on a call. One of the suspects got the drop on us."

"I see."

Uh-huh. Somehow I didn't think he was impressed.

"Please, Mr. Ellison, is Jim all right? He hasn't gotten any worse?" His demeanor was unnerving, and I was getting scared.

"The doctors tell us he's declined somewhat since yesterday. The peritonitis has a firm hold, and they're having trouble keeping his temperature under control. They've changed antibiotics, hoping they'll have some effect. And, he'll never walk again. So no, he's not all right. I'm somewhat surprised you didn't already know this. I thought you were supposed to "watch his back", or whatever it is you do? "

I felt the blood drain from my face. Jim had declined. He was worse than yesterday. Oh, God, please, don't let him die. Please. I should have been here. I should have. Mr. Ellison's last question finally penetrated my brain and I gasped, feeling as though I'd been punched. You're right Mr. Ellison, I should have, but isn't that like the pot calling the kettle? When were you ever there for Jim when he was growing up? When he needed you most? I took a deep breath, and put away my guilt. Looking at Mr. Ellison, I said, "I spent the night here, in his room. When I left this morning, he was fairly stable. If I'd known he was going to get worse, I would have stayed."

His expression softened almost infinitesimally. As a peace offering, I added, "I'll spend every minute I can with Jim, but I do have a job to do. I want to catch his shooter."

Mr. Ellison stared at me for a long moment.

"Could you have prevented what happened to Jimmy?"

"Dad!"

Until that moment, I'd been so focused on Jim's dad, that I forgot Steven was there. I cast him a faint smile, and met Mr. Ellison's gaze evenly.

"I only wish I could have." I broke his gaze and stared at the wall over his shoulder. "I've been over it a million times in my head, wondering what I could've done differently. I've played the 'if' game. If I'd seen the perp before Jim, I could have drawn his fire. If I'd drawn his fire, Jim might not have been shot. But the fact is, it didn't go down that way. I didn't see the perp first, and I didn't have a chance to draw his fire." Tears stung my eyes as I thought about yesterday. "Jim was shot before he could even bring his weapon to bear. I'd give anything to have taken that bullet instead of Jim."

I met Mr. Ellison's gaze again, and was surprised to see a warming in the faded blue eyes.

"Will catching the shooter bring back the use of Jimmy's legs?"

I sighed. "No, but it will get a dangerous criminal off the streets. Hopefully before he hurts someone else. Jim would want him caught."

"I believe you're right--Blair. Take care of Jimmy, and watch out yourself." He nodded to me, and walked away.

I watched him, feeling rather bemused, and started when Steven laid a hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him.

"Like Dad said, take care of yourself. Jim's going to need you more than ever now."

"Thanks, Steven. And thanks for coming to see him"

Steven smiled, patted my shoulder, and went to catch up with his father.

I watched until they were out of sight around a corner. I opened the door to Jim's room, and paused. Jim looked more fragile than ever. His complexion was waxy and gray. I sent up another prayer. This was supposed to be the season of miracles. I was certainly hoping--and praying--for one. So far, God seemed to be with us.

December 24, 5:00 AM

I scrubbed a hand over my face and grimaced at the substantial beard stubble I felt. I hadn't shaved since yesterday morning. How lucky for me; I'm one of those who can grow a respectable beard in a couple of days. Ugh. I knew I must look pretty mean by now. There wasn't a thing I could do about it at the moment, nor did I much care. I looked at Jim's face. He only had a trace of bristle and I realized the nurses must have given him a sponge bath and shave sometime yesterday. The man was thinning on top, but his beard was almost as heavy as mine, just lighter in color. And why was I going on about beards? Probably to reassure myself there was something still simple and mundane going on in our lives.

Sighing, I leaned my head back against the chair and stared at the silent figure in the bed. We'd almost lost him--again. I shuddered, and reached out to touch Jim's hand, needing that small contact. His temperature had soared during the night and he'd gone into convulsions. The ice bath worked to bring his temperature down, but then his blood pressure took a nosedive. The doctors and nurses had worked frantically to stabilize him, but he'd needed surgery to stop the internal bleeding caused by torn sutures. So at midnight, they'd rushed Jim to the operating room, and I'd prayed I'd see him come out of there alive. Thank you, God.

Simon and Jim's family left a few hours ago. They'd all come running when I called them with the grim news, and stayed until they were sure Jim wasn't going to slip away from us, for now.

I leaned forward on my elbows and pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes, trying to relieve their fatigue and irritation. It felt good to rub them, but the relief was only temporary. I raised my head and looked at Jim again.

"Jim, man, if you only knew how we're all praying for you. We want you back, buddy. I know it won't be the same, but we'll figure something out. It's not the end of the world."

I stood and walked to the window. Pulling the drape aside, I looked up into the still-dark sky. The North Star winked in the heavens. I smiled slightly. The North Star was supposed to be a traveler's guiding light. I hope it guided me in this dark hour.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

I turned to see Helen at the door.

"There's a call for you at the nurses' station. A Detective Taggart."

Anticipation filled me. "Thanks, Helen." I returned to the bed and squeezed Jim's hand briefly. "Don't go anywhere, Jim." I hurried to the phone.

"Joel, what's up?"

"Hi, Blair. How's Jim?"

I hesitated. "It was really iffy last night, but he's still with us."

"Good."

"Come on, Joel, I know you didn't call me at this time of the morning just to see how Jim's doing. What's going on?"

"Rodriguez tried to knock over a convenience store a little while ago. Something went wrong, now he has hostages. One of them is a cop."

"Where?"

"The Quick Trip on 7th and Woolworth."

"What's the situation?"

"At a standstill for now. Simon's on his way, and S.W.A.T. just arrived with the hostage negotiator."

"Okay. I'm on my way." I hung up and rushed back to Jim's room. Moments later I raced down the stairs, completely eschewing the elevator.

December 24, 5:45 AM

I pulled Jim's truck in behind Simon's sedan and hopped out.

"Simon, Joel, what's going on?"

"Sandburg," Simon greeted. "How is he?"

I smiled slightly. "He's stable. No change otherwise."

The captain nodded, then got down to the business at hand. "Rodriguez has three hostages. The night manager, a night clerk, and one uniformed police officer."

"Who's the officer inside? Do we know him?"

"A rookie by the name of Aarons. Brad Aarons."

I felt sick. "He and I went through the academy together."

"What do you know about him?" Simon asked.

"Well, he was kind of unpredictable when it came to situations. Sometimes he could be pretty cool, other times he'd just blow up. We never knew which way he was going to go in a tight spot.

Simon scowled. "Johnson, his training officer, says he's settled down quite a bit, and he's pretty sure Aarons will keep his cool while there are hostages involved." He paused, studying the storefront. "Rodriguez knows we're out here, and hasn't made any demands yet, so I think we've got a little time."

I nodded, but I wasn't so sure. Rodriguez shot my partner in cold blood, and possibly the jewelry store owner. I didn't think it would take much for him to shoot at least one of the hostages, maybe even kill one.

That thought hadn't even dissipated before gunfire erupted and glass shattered. We ducked instinctively, turning to stare at the store front. Two of the hostages came running from the building. A couple of the S.W.A.T. officers quickly ducked out to help them to cover. My attention returned to the store, where I could see Aarons struggling with Rodriguez. He was trying to gain control of the gun. I held my breath. A single gunshot echoed in the cold air, and the two men dropped from sight. A chill raced up my spine.

S.W.A.T. stormed the entrance, unsure what the situation was but prepared for the worst. Simon, Joel, and I followed.

The situation, as it turned out, was not as bad as we feared. Aarons was still alive, though dazed from a bullet graze to his forehead. Rodriguez was unconscious, having hit his head on the corner of a display shelf when he fell. I kicked the gun out of Rodriguez's lax hand and checked him for other weapons. He had Aarons' .38 in one coat pocket, and a knife in another. I relieved him of the weapons and handed them to Simon. Rodriguez moaned as I rolled him over, and began to come around. I quickly snapped the cuffs on him.

You'd think the guy would give it up once he realized he was cuffed and surrounded by cops with rifles pointed at him. Nope. Damned if Rodriguez didn't keep fighting, and it didn't take us long to realize he was strung out on something. He started cursing and kicking and squirming. He was like a slippery, flapping fish. I finally sat on him to keep him down, while one of the Uniforms put chains on him. I couldn't believe it. It made me sick, but there was no controlling him otherwise.

It took awhile, but eventually he calmed down enough to be read his rights. They'd be read to him again when he was more coherent and before any questioning took place. We had to cover all our bases with the attorneys. Too violent to transport via squad car, Rodriguez was put in the back of a paddy wagon and carried off to the station.

Simon came up beside me. I was watching the prisoner transport disappear down the street.

"We got him," I said with quiet satisfaction. It was anti-climatic. I wanted to catch the bastard, but not like this. Not through some stupid criminal stunt of robbing a convenience store.

"Yes, we did. Good work, Blair."

I glanced at Simon in surprise. "Thanks, Simon, though I don't know what for."

The corner of his mouth turned upward. "You kept your cool, when you could have clocked Rodriguez. How you managed to hold onto him for so long, I don't know, but sitting on him was a good solution."

I chuckled. "Yeah. It was, wasn't it?" I looked up at Simon again. "Do you suppose I.A. will be satisfied now? We have Rodriguez and his gun, which happens to be a 9 mil. I'd bet money the ballistics will match the bullet taken out of the store owner."

"That still won't directly connect Rodriguez to Jim's shooting, but it's a good start."

"We need to get Rodriguez to confess." I vowed to get that confession.

"That might not be necessary."

I raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"I just found this out late yesterday, but apparently what Howard failed to tell you is that they recovered several other slugs from the alley. Of course they've identified yours and Jim's, but there were others, all from a 9 mil or .38."

"Didn't they run ballistics on Michaels' gun?"

"Yes, and most of the rest of the slugs recovered matched it, but there were two that didn't. Howard believed they were from another shooting incident, and let them go as unimportant."

I bristled. "How does that guy stay employed?"

Simon shook his head and shrugged. "He's a good politician."

"Politics!" I spat. I turned away in disgust, and headed for the truck. "I'll see you back at the station, Captain." I was glad Simon didn't try to call me back. I needed time to stew--or run.

December 24, 1:00 PM

I hummed under my breath as I made my way up to Jim's room. Things were good. Well, mostly. Rodriguez had been charged with two counts of armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and attempted murder. Ballistics had matched Rodriguez's gun to the slug removed from the jewelry store owner, and the two odd slugs found in the alley. Presented with this evidence, Rodriguez had confessed to the jewelry store heist, and to shooting Jim. I.A. was satisfied, and Howard had reluctantly closed the investigation. I just hoped "attempted" wouldn't get dropped from the murder charge.

When I reached Jim's room, there were a couple of doctors and a nurse hovering around Jim's bed.

"What's going on?" I blurted, my heart suddenly doing double-time.

One of the doctors turned, giving me a reassuring smile. At least I think it was supposed to be reassuring. I was too scared to tell.

"Mr. Sandburg, it's all right. Mr. Ellison is doing about as well as expected at the moment. He's still in a coma, but the peritonitis seems to be under control, and his blood pressure is steady.

I sagged in relief. At least he hadn't gotten any worse. "So, what are you doing?"

"We were discussing removing the intubation.

"The longer he's on the ventilator, the more likely his body will become too dependent on it."

"What happens if he doesn't breathe on his own?"

"We resuscitate and attempt to intubate him again."

"But you think he's able to breathe on his own?"

They nodded.

"Were you planning to tell me about this before you did it?"

"Yes, Mr. Sandburg, we were going to contact you. We'd just started discussing it when you arrived, in fact. We can't extubate him without your approval, in any case."

I sighed, closing my eyes for a moment. Was this a risk I was willing to take? After the last two days' downhill progress, was Jim strong enough? Please, let him be strong enough. I opened my eyes. "Do it."

They nodded and went to work. A few minutes later the ventilator was turned off and the tube withdrawn from Jim's throat. Everyone waited tensely for Jim to breathe. Nothing happened. I started to panic. "Jim," I whispered. "Please, God, let him breathe." Interminable seconds passed. Jim's chest expanded in a deep breath. And contracted. His chest continued to rise and fall in a steady, shallow rhythm after that. My knees threatened to buckle with the relief. Once again I thanked the Man Upstairs.

December 24, 9:30 PM

"Merry Christmas, guys. Thanks for doing this. It really meant a lot, and I'm sure Jim would be touched." I said, standing outside Jim's room.

"No worries, Sandy. It was fun."

"Give Jim our best. We're praying for him," Joel said, laying a hand on my shoulder.

"Thanks, Joel. I will. I know he'd appreciate it."

"Come on, people. We need to go before we're thrown out of here. We've overstayed our welcome as it is." Simon looked at me. "Call me if you need anything, Blair. I mean it."

I nodded, not trusting my voice at that moment. I'd woken from a light doze to find half of Major Crime standing outside the observation window of Jim's room. Joel, Henri, Rafe, Megan, and Simon had decided to bring their office party here to share with me and Jim. I had been stunned speechless, much to their amusement.

With final words of encouragement and well wishes, they headed down the hall. I watched them go with a smile. Once they were gone, I went back into Jim's room.

"What do you think, Jim? I told you they were all praying for you. They're good friends."

My eyes landed on the duffel bag Simon had brought from the loft. I rubbed my whiskered cheeks and smiled. Yeah, Simon, it was way past time I got rid of the face fur. I picked up the bag and ducked into the bathroom.

Ah. A sponge bath, shave, and a clean set of clothes. I felt almost like new. I shivered as cooler air hit my bare cheeks coming out of the bathroom. Hmm. I forgot how insulating a beard could be.

"I'm back, Jim. Did you miss me?" I settled down in the recliner thingie next to Jim's bed. I stared at his silent form for a while. They were feeding him oxygen through a tube to boost his blood oxygen levels, but at least he was breathing unassisted. Thank you, God.

I picked up the book Simon had stuck in for me and began to read.

December 25, 12:00 AM

SLAP!

I jerked awake. What was that? I stared around the room, trying to get my foggy brain to function. I spied the book on the floor, and sighed in relief. It must have slid off my lap when I dozed off. Leaning forward, I scrubbed a hand down my face, then got up and wandered to the window.

There was no moon, but stars glittered in a cloudless sky. I located Ursa Major aka the Big Dipper and tracked the dipper up to the North Star. I amused myself for a time, picking out the different constellations.

I went to Jim and grasped his hand, needing that contact. Please, God, let Jim recover. If he can't have the use of his legs back, please give me the strength to help him. I know he has so much left to do. Let him wake up.

I studied Jim's face, absently stroking the back of his hand. He was so pale and still. Only the monitors hooked to him and the shallow rise and fall of his chest reassured me he was still here.

His hand twitched. I thought it was my imagination. I held my breath, staring at his hand. It twitched again, and his fingers actually curled gently around mine. My eyes flew to Jim's face. His eyelids fluttered and slowly opened, his gaze meeting mine.

"Jim?" I was afraid to breathe.

He smiled, and moved his head a fraction. "Who--else--would--wake--up--to--your--mug--Sandburg?" His voice rasped and broke in several places, but it sounded wonderful to me.

All the breath rushed out of me, and I collapsed on the side of the bed. My face split into a huge grin, and tears were stinging my eyes, but I didn't care. I had God's answer. Jim was going to be okay. Maybe not whole, but he was going to be okay.

"Merry Christmas, Jim. Welcome back." Thank you, God.

The End


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