"Well, well, well. What do we have here? Judging by the riffraff in this place, I'd say that the NDA's lowering its standards."
Jim Ellison bristled when he heard the smug voice. No matter what his boss, Simon Banks, said, being tapped to be Cascade's representative to the National Detective Association's annual meeting was not an honor. In fact, it was a downright pain in the ass. Not only did the stale air of the meeting rooms wreck havoc with his enhanced senses, but he'd forgotten what it was like to have his sidekick with him in a place where their reputations didn't proceed them. Blair Sandburg had been his unofficial partner for long enough at home that the hostile stares and startled glances were history, replaced with affectionate admiration for the long-haired anthropologist's unusual, but effective, tactics.
Barely two hours into the NDA conference, however, and Ellison had already stomached enough criticisms about Blair's presence as an attendee to last him a good long while. So far, he'd managed to ignore the slights, but this latest joker had the unfortunate honor to be the straw that broke the Sentinel's back. Despite the grad student's cautionary hand on his arm, the big detective was ready to blow as he faced the newcomer that had come up behind them and offered the derogatory greeting...
Only, instead of an arrogant jerk, he found himself looking into the friendly face of a long-time acquaintance. "Sloan?"
"Whoa there, Slick, I thought that temper of yours had cooled a bit." The large man held his hands up as if in surrender.
Jim gave a sheepish grin and reached up to slap the taller man's shoulder. "It only flares up when I'm around assholes."
"And, let me guess," the newcomer interjected, his smile deepening, "you're surrounded by assholes on a fairly regular basis."
"Something like that."
Blair Sandburg looked on in amazement. One minute it seemed like his partner was gonna clean this guy's clock, the next, they're shooting the breeze like old drinking buddies. Not that the grad student minded. Any distraction that helped the Sentinel out of his pissy mood was welcome as far as he was concerned.
"Chief, I'd like you to meet somebody," Jim said, drawing his partner into the conversation. "This is Steve Sloan, a detective from Los Angeles." Jim turned to the newly identified man and finished the introduction. "Sloan, this is Blair Sandburg. My partner."
Blair grinned and offered his hand to the other man, pleased that there was no hesitation as his handshake was returned.
Steve Sloan definitely reminded the anthropologist of Jim, although not physically. Steve was dark blonde where Jim's hair, what there was left of it, was brown. Even though Ellison was a tall man, the Los Angeles detective topped him by a couple of inches, making the Sentinel seem much leaner and sleeker as they stood side by side. No, the similarity came more from their body movements, the stance that conveyed both awareness of their surroundings and the unspoken confidence that they could handle anything their environment could throw in their way.
In other words, utter C-O-P from head to toe, both of them.
"Partner? What happened to the lone wolf routine? Or did it just take this long for your C.O. to find another poor slob willing to put up with you?"
Blair openly grinned, amused by the comment as well as the way Sloan's dry sense of humor mirrored Jim's. It looked like the similarities were more than skin-deep.
Much to his curly-haired partner's disappointment, Ellison chose to ignore Steve's dig at his own expense and went straight to the issue of Blair's status. "Sandburg's not exactly a cop. He started out as an observer, but he turned out to be a bigger asset than some of the guys with badges. So, he's more or less a permanent consultant for our department."
Sloan chuckled. "A consultant? Well, you don't have to sell me on the notion that a non-cop can bring a valuable insight onto a case. That's something I'm more than a little familiar with."
Jim nodded. "I figured you would be." At Sandburg's puzzled expression, the Sentinel explained. "Steve's father is a consultant to LAPD's homicide department."
"Your dad?" Blair was impressed. "That's cool."
"Yep, he's head of internal medicine at a local hospital, but he's got a mind like Sherlock Holmes. My father's helped us out on quite a few cases over the years." Sloan directed his next comment to Jim. "Dad said to tell you hello by the way."
"Mark's not here? That's too bad, I was hoping that he and Sandburg would have a chance to talk. You know, about how an outsider fits into a police department." The Sentinel jabbed a friendly fist at Blair's shoulder. "Or, in Junior's case, how an outsider comes in and ends up practically running the department."
"Dad had planned on attending this year, but he had a freak rollerskating accident a couple days ago and sprained his ankle."
Blair's eyebrows raised in surprise. Steve Sloan looked to be a few years older than Jim, his father had to at least be in his middle or late sixties. "A rollerskating doctor that helps solve crimes? I thought a anthropologist playing police sidekick was quirky, but sounds like your dad's got me beat."
"Well, I guess you'd have to know my father...."
Steve Sloan's explanation was cut off as another man joined their group. Walking up to the L.A. detective, the shorter blonde started talking right away, obviously not noticing that his friend was in the middle of a conversation. "Hey, Steve, you'll never guess what they're trying to pass off here as coffee. And I thought the sludge they served at the hospital was bad..."
Jim quickly turned his yelp of laughter into a badly disguised cough. The look on Sloan's face - did he really look that stymied when a wound-up Sandburg was on the loose? Frankly, the Cascade detective didn't really want to know.
Steve put a quelling hand on the younger newcomer's shoulder. "Jim, Blair, I'd like you to meet Dr. Jesse Travis, my dad's protege at Community General Hospital and someone who's also proven to be quite useful in crime investigation. Jess, Jim Ellison is the detective from Washington I was telling you about and Sandburg there is his civilian partner."
Dr. Travis didn't seemed at all phased at the rapid conversational turn. "Hey, nice to meet you."
Ellison quirked a sardonic eyebrow at his West Coast counterpart. "So, you've acquired a sidekick too, huh? Funny how you hadn't mentioned that yet."
"I was getting around to it," Sloan protested.
Jesse, for his part, was concentrating on Blair Sandburg. "You're a civilian? How you'd hook up with a police department? Me, it just kind of came with my medical internship as a part of working with Mark Sloan."
Blair gave Jim a worried look and was reassured by the other man's steady gaze. "I'm working on my doctorate in anthropology, studying the culture of urban police units."
"And like a bad case of head lice, he just wouldn't go away again." Jim couldn't help but tease the younger man.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yuck it up all you want, Big Guy, we'll see who's laughing the next time your paperwork piles up." Sandburg, of course, gave as good as he got.
Jesse noticed Sloan looking at him hopefully. "Don't even think about it, Steve." Leaning forward, the doctor whispered to the two men from Cascade, his shock of blonde hair making him look even younger than he was. "They make us study bad penmanship in medical school. If I wrote his reports, nobody'd without a background in the health care industry would be able to decipher them."
"You have no idea," Blair said to Jesse, "what a relief it is to have someone I can talk to without getting a crick in my neck." Both of the younger men were a bit on the short side of average height, a sharp contrast to their taller partners.
"You're not kidding. With the coffee sludge that most cops drink, you'd think their growth would be stunted, but they seem to thrive on it."
The anthropologist nodded sympathetically, then snapped his fingers when a sudden idea came to him. "Hey, Jim and I passed a Starbuck's on the way in. There's a break written into the program, let's go grab some potable coffee. What do you say, guys?"
"I dunno, Chief. All that fancy crap, it never manages to taste like real coffee."
"I know what you mean," Sloan agreed with the Sentinel, "give me a plain old bean any day."
"That's because you've got a the palate about as sophisticated as Fred Flintstone," Jesse teased. "How about Blair and I go get some real coffee while you guys shoot the breeze?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," the anthropologist turned to go but was stopped by Jim's arm on his elbow.
"Just keep your head up, Sandburg. New York's a big city."
Blair shook his head in disgust. "Geez, Jim, it's just across the street from the convention center. I think Dr. Travis and I can find our way all right." The grad student stalked off in a huff. Jesse shrugged his shoulders good-naturedly, grinned at the two detectives, and followed the curly-haired man as he headed towards the exit.
Jim watched as the two smaller men made their way out, Blair's arms waving in animated gestures, indicating that he was impassioned about whatever the topic of discussion was. The Sentinel tuned in his hearing just long enough to hear his partner ranting about overprotective, controlling cop-types and Jesse's murmured agreements.
Sloan gestured over to a pair of deserted chairs in a quiet portion of the convention center's lobby and the two men settled into a more comfortable spot to continue their conversation. "So, Jess and I didn't have much time to look around, is the neighborhood really bad enough that you have to be worried about Sandburg going across the street - with several thousand police officers within shouting distance?"
"Well..." Jim temporized, "you'd have to know Blair. He's something of a trouble magnet."
Sloan's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Trouble magnet?"
"You see, trouble seems to follow him around. Sort of like he's a great big can of tuna and trouble's a cat trying to get a sniff."
Steve laughed. "C'mon, pull the other leg. It can't be that bad..."
Ellison scrubbed his hand through his short hair. "Oh, it can't? Only Blair would offer a ride to the girl next door, then get caught up in the middle and taken hostage when she and her stupidass gang of amateurs try to hoodwink a real crook."
"Ouch," Sloan winced, "I've been there." At Jim's questioning look, he explained. "Jesse once gave a patient a ride home. He'd saved her life the day before and she became obsessed with him. Ended up maneuvering him into a situation where he killed her ex-lover. Oh, it was selfdefense all right, but Jess nearly got arrested."
"See what I mean? Trouble magnet. Sounds like you got one too." Jim said. "But, I have to give Sandburg credit. As many crazy situations as he gets into, he's pretty creative in getting out of them too."
"Really? Like what?"
"Well, there was that time he took out a perp by hitting him with a baseball. Or the time he helped diffuse an armored car robbery with a fire hose." Jim swelled a bit with justified pride in his partner's exploits. "But my personal favorite was the time he was taken hostage, along with a group of other people, in a high rise office building's elevator. The terrorist had stopped the elevator car and then kept dropping it. We couldn't come in with a SWAT team 'cause the whole thing was wired with explosives and set to blow. Not only did Sandburg keep his cool and even got the other hostages to dance the Macarena when we needed a diversion, but he saved all of them by using a blow torch to dump the bomb." Ellison shook his head at the memory of that tense situation.
Steve whistled in appreciation. "Not bad for a civvie. Elevator, huh? Jess took a couple of years off my life in one of those." Seeing Ellison's interested expression, he explained. " Speaking of terrorists, you remember that bomber we had, the one that blew up the hospital?" The incident had been all over the national media and, seeing Jim's nod, Sloan continued. "Jesse and I were looking for trapped survivors when we came to an elevator hanging by a frayed cable. One of its passengers was pinned and Jesse refused to leave him. Insisted that I get the rest of the people out while he and this nurse stayed behind to amputate the guy's leg. All three of them got out just before the whole thing let go."
Both men lapsed into silence, thinking about their friends.
"The thing that really gets me," Jim said, finally breaking the silence, "is that Blair doesn't even really acknowledge that he's done something out of the ordinary. Oh, he gets scared now and then, but that doesn't stop him from being right in the thick of things - even when I tell him to wait out by the truck."
"Tell me about it," Steve commiserated. "I was going into a hostage negotiation once and, when I turned around, Jess was trotting right behind me, outfitted in a bullet-proof vest. Said one of the hostages was wounded and, as a physician, he was duty-bound to help." The big blonde shook his head in fond remembrance. "He waited outside until I told him it was clear to come in, though. I have to give him that."
"I should be so lucky," Jim said, then chuckled as a particular memory came to him. "It backfired on Sandburg once. His mother called right in the middle of a shootout. He tried run some lame story by her, but the next thing he knows, Naomi's in Cascade, giving him an earful."
"Mom doesn't approve of her little boy tagging along with a cop?"
Jim shook his head. "Not exactly, although she's backed off a bit on it. Naomi's a real throwback to the sixties, a genuine hippie type. Incense, meditation, the whole nine yards."
"Compared to Jesse's dad, she sounds almost normal." Seeing the Ellison's look of disbelief, Sloan continued. "Jess's father is a semi-retired spy."
"Oh, come on. A spy?" Jim wasn't quite believing it.
Sloan held his hand up in a pledge. "Scout's honor. A spy. Real CIA, hush-hush stuff. Distanced himself from the family when Jess was a kid, trying to keep them safe."
"Well, it sounds like both of our partners are nuts, but at least their parents have a reasonable idea of personal safety." Jim conveniently forgot to mention that Blair's mother, Naomi, had been drawn into a car smuggling case the first time he'd met her. "That's more than can be said for their kids. But Sandburg, even after all the crap he gets himself into, still nags me about my eating habits. Says Wonder Burger's not good for you, tries to get me to drink these God-awful algae shakes, even got me to try tongue. Can you believe that - a junior partner with a mother hen complex?"
"I can believe it. Jesse and I once planned to go up north and spend a couple of days in this cabin he'd gotten to use free for a weekend - and all he brought was lite beer!"
"Lite beer? I'm surprised that there wasn't a body for you to hide, after a stunt like that," Ellison started to laugh, but stopped when he saw the amused look drain from Sloan's face. "Something tells me that's not all of the story."
Steve looked away for a minute and when he turned back to answer Jim's question, his face was bleak. "I wasn't too... happy... with Jesse over that. Made a snide comment or two and then headed back to town to get some real beer. When I got back, he was gone."
"Gone?" Jim was confused. True, he'd seen little of Travis before the doctor had taken off with Sandburg on a quest for drinkable coffee, but he'd seemed like a good-natured sort, not exactly the type to take off in a snit.
"Yeah, he was missing for five days. Finally got picked up by some state troopers - in Utah, hundreds of miles of away. The only thing he could remember was that I'd left him."
Jim whistled in sympathy.
Sloan rubbed his face with both hands, as if trying to rid himself of a bad memory. "Things got real weird for a while. Turned out that Jess had been working on a drug study and coming up with some negative results. The pharmaceutical company had too much invested in the product to pull it so close to release, so they set about to ruin Jesse's credibility. Kidnapped him, drugged him for days, and made him think he'd been abducted by aliens. It was... rough... on all of us, but especially Jess. He thought he was going crazy. I think it took him months to get back to normal, even when we did figure out what was going on."
Unspoken, but obvious by his expression, was Steve's conviction that the whole incident had been his fault - for leaving the young man alone in the first place.
"Not your fault, buddy," Jim commented. "Sounds like they had an elaborate set-up. People like that won't hesitate at taking out anyone that got in their way. If you hadn't left when you did, they would have grabbed Travis anyway, over your dead body if need be."
"Think so?" Steve looked hopeful at Jim's reassurances. Friends and family had been saying the same thing to him for months, but they weren't cops and the L.A. detective found himself craving the reassurance of another police officer.
"I know so." Jim was firm. "I know how it feels. Blair got nabbed by one of our suspects, a guy that had been - literally - under our nose the practically the whole time. Don't know why I didn't see it coming, but I didn't. David Lash almost killed him before I could find where he had Sandburg stashed. It took a long time to realize that it wasn't my fault, it was the perp's fault. Especially when Sandburg had nightmares about it for three weeks straight..."
Steve Sloan appreciated Ellison's support, especially since the other man had been through a harrowing experience with his own youthful partner. But, something in Jim's last statement was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was time to move beyond weighty emotional matters and get to the good stuff. "Nightmares, huh? So, tell me, does Blair hog the bed too?"
Jim blushed, caught totally off-guard by the sly question. Still, he was glad it was Sloan asking and not someone else. He'd actually met Steve at an NDA meeting years ago, when the hotel had mixed up their reservations. The two men had ended up sharing a room, which, of course, only had one king-sized bed. Normally Ellison would have loathed rooming with someone he didn't know, but he and the blonde Californian had quickly established a rapport, which led to them doing more in that bed than just sleeping. Neither man had been optimistic at carrying out a long-distance relationship, but had managed to remain good friends over the years. There were few of his brothers in blue that Jim could confide in about his true relationship with Blair, which made the Sentinel doubly glad he'd run in to Sloan during this meeting. If anyone could understand about him and Sandburg, it would be Steve.
"Does he hog the bed?" Jim repeated the other man's question. "Damn right he does. You, I could understand and even forgive, you're a big guy, but Blair's too short to need that much space."
Steve leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Jess doesn't hog the bed," he confided in a hoarse whisper, "he just doesn't sleep on the mattress at all. He sleeps on top of me."
Jim flashed his friend a quick grin. "You old dog. He's, what?, twenty years younger than you?"
Sloan snorted. "Not quite twenty, thank you very much. In fact..." Steve looked the Cascade man up and down, "I think the span of years between us is pretty close to what separates you and Sandburg."
"Oh, you wish..." Jim's grin got wider. "So, do you have a hard time keeping up with the younger generation?"
Steve snorted. "I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer."
The Cascade detective's grin morphed into a smirk - score one for the Northern West Coast team. "Keep your mind out of the gutter, Sloan." He nodded in the direction their lovers had taken a few minutes before. "I'm talking about cultural stuff. Fancy coffee, new age music, earrings, lap top computers, that sort of thing."
"Oh, that," Sloan said, grimacing when he's realized the verbal trap his friend had successfully led him into with that "keeping up" comment. "Country-western, interactive computer games, pastel dress shirts under lab coats that are much too long."
At Jim's confused expression, the Californian detective explained that last comment. "Those damn lab coats that doctors have to wear. They cover Jess's.... uh... best asset."
Ellison chuckled at how the other man had changed his choice of word at the last minute. "I hear you. Sandburg wears these flannel shirts and loose jeans. Drives me crazy, but at least it keeps the perps unaware. They take a look at him, write him off as some sort of academic type, and don't notice that the kid's a damn good athlete. Gives him an edge and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Steve nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Jesse's sports crazy, especially water sports. He loves to surf."
"Surfing, huh?" Jim rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmmm... maybe Blair and I'll have to visit you in L.A. sometime, Jess can show me all the good beaches."
The other detective gave him a sideways glance. "So what are Blair and I going to be doing while you're out with my lover? While Jess is wearing a bathing suit, I might add."
Jim gave Sloan a spot-on imitation of Blair's best expression of innocence. "You and Sandburg can shoot some hoops." When Steve just laughed at the idea of playing basketball with a man so much shorter than himself, Ellison became a little more serious. "No, really. Blair can run circles around me on a basketball court."
"Really?" Sloan's single raised eyebrow spoke volumes of skepticism.
"Really...." Jim started to defend his mate's prowess but stopped short as it occurred to him what their conversation had become. "You realize that we're comparing boyfriends like were a couple of freshman cheerleaders, don't you?"
Like fools, the two policemen grinned at each other.
"So, what did two flatfoots like us," Jim wondered aloud, "do to deserve such rare, if troubleattracting, creatures like Blair and Jesse?"
"I don't know," Steve answered, "but don't say that too loud. I don't want Fate or Destiny to hear you, in case they decide there's been a mistake and I have to give Jess up."
The two men had lapsed into a companionable silence when a woman came running into the conventional hall. "Help, call 911! Somebody's trying to rob the store across the street!"
Steve groaned. "Please tell me she doesn't mean Starbucks, the one that Jess and Blair are at?"
The Sentinel tilted his head, honing in on a distinctive voice. When he'd found it, and realized the circumstances his lover was in, Ellison dropped his head down a moment in disbelief. Why Blair? Why him?
But could he really have expected anything else? With the double attraction of Blair Sandurg and Jesse Travis, Trouble was bound to have a field day.
Getting up, the Cascade detective slapped his fellow cop on the shoulder. "C'mon, looks like Trouble found both of them. That kid's gonna give me a heartattack one of these days."
Steve sighed as he joined his friend, but then gave up and grinned. "Yeah, but would we really have it any other way?"
Then, laughing, both men rushed off to save their respective mates from their latest predicament.
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