The characters in this story are the property of ABC TV, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended. All other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first.

This was written for a challenge some time ago--the story was to include a thong. Of course, the challenger didn't specify what kind of thong... (grin)

Spoilers: This takes place during "Collaboration" and "Sleeper".

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It was only a piece of jewelry, and cheap at that. Sloan turned it over and over in her hands, feeling the roughness of the leather, the smooth coolness of the beads. It was a symbol of her fears, her questions, and at the same time a stinging comfort--she had this, at least. Something to hold on to.

The muffled roar of the airplane's engines had sunk to the back of her consciousness, and she stared blankly out the window. She couldn't seem to concentrate on anything else--anything but the shock of seeing the mess in the lab, of realizing what had happened. That someone they knew and respected, someone Ed trusted, had been only a facade. That he had stolen Ed away, leaving them to wonder why, where, whether her friend was still alive. And for how long he would remain so.

The beads clicked faintly between her fingers. Sloan pulled them through again, rubbing the knot that tied the loop. She'd found it on one of the lab counters, and some impulse had made her snatch it up as they rushed away to the airport. She raised it to her lips as she forced tears back for the hundredth time, catching the faint scent of leather and Ed's aftershave.

Why did they take him? What do they want him for? A hostage? The questions circled endlessly, wearing a path in her mind. Her gentle, brilliant, dearest friend, at the mercy of people that she knew to be without mercy. How long did Dr. Copeland work against us? How much damage has he done?

The necklet dropped unnoticed from her hand as her mind's eye recalled Shane standing in her apartment, wary and yet willing to help. "They used the word 'holocaust'."

What are they planning?

A soft noise broke into her thoughts. Tom returned to his seat, his gaze running over her in concern as he sat. "You doing all right?" he asked quietly.

Sloan nodded. Tom glanced at the floor, then bent and retrieved the necklet, dropping it into Sloan's palm. "You should try to sleep," he added.

"I can't," she replied. Tom raised one brow at her, then picked the necklet out of her hand and examined it.

"Did you give this to him?" he asked finally, returning it to her.

Sloan tucked it into her pocket. "No, he's had it for years. Standard surfer wear."

Tom did not answer, merely settling back and taking her hand in his.

xxxxx

Later

The lanky form in the bed had been motionless for hours now. Sloan had refused to leave the room; she sat obstinately on the couch and watched Ed. Tom and Sloan had brought the vaccine in time to save many lives, but it remained to be seen if they had arrived in time to save Ed's.

Tom kept his thoughts to himself, struck anew by the deep caring humans were so capable of. Attwood drifted in and out, haunted by severe worry though he hid it well; Sloan's formidable will was trained on Ed like a laser; even the doctors and nurses, harried though they were, willingly took on the burden of concern when they stopped by. He too felt a sickening weight for the man whom he had begun to consider a friend, but the feeling troubled him, and he did his best to ignore it. Sloan needed his support; that was clear.

He unfolded his arms and stepped away from the wall he'd been leaning on. Sloan had curled her legs under herself and was again fingering Ed's necklet. Tom remembered seeing the tall scientist wearing one or two other, similar, pieces; they seemed to be his small rebellion against the necktie and collared shirt of the business world.

He sat down next to Sloan, wordless. As the minutes crept by, underscored by the faint beeps of medical equipment and the harsh breathing of the man in the bed, her eyelids grew heavy. It didn't surprise Tom; he'd watched her work at a breakneck pace for hours, doing critical and impossibly precise things with a substance that could kill her, and had marveled at her strength. Now, as she sank into slumber, he eased her head down onto his lap and caught the necklet as it fell from her lax hand. He rubbed his thumb over the beads, wondering at the history of the man who wore it. Why surfing? An impractical and even dangerous pastime. Why the rebellion?

Then Tom coiled the jewelry up and set it aside. The questions would have to wait.

xxxxxxx

Later still

Ed was impatient with his weakness. It was irritating, to be awake and not sleepy, but still so drained that even sitting up wore him out too quickly. His mind still circled around how close he'd come to dying, and how his old mentor had betrayed him, tried to use him. He pushed the thought away. He didn't want to think about Dr. Copeland, not now.

The door opened and Sloan came in, bearing videotapes. "My savior," Ed said, pushing himself up. At Sloan's glare, he grinned a little and slid back down. "What'd you get?"

"They didn't have Star Wars, but I got Jedi and Blue Juice, and..." She threw him an exasperated look. "...How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Honestly, Ed, you should have seen the video clerk's face."

Ed laughed, then coughed, then waved off her concern irritably. "I'm fine." Ignoring this, Sloan laid her hand on his forehead to check his temperature. "Mother."

She ignored that too, and straightened. "Which one do you want to watch first?"

"Jedi." He squirmed around and stuffed another pillow behind his head. Sloan popped open the video case and put the tape in the VCR, then blinked, set down the case, and pulled something out of her pocket.

"Here, I forgot to give you this."

Ed was surprised to see one of his necklets land in his palm. "Hey, I thought I'd lost this one. Where'd you find it?"

"In the lab." Sloan stared down at the simple leather thong and beads, and then rubbed at her eyes. "After Copeland kidnapped you."

"Hey." Ed dropped the necklet on the bed and held out his arms. "C'mere."

Sloan knelt by the bed and buried her face in his shoulder as he held her in an awkward embrace. He felt her shoulders heave, heard her breath catch on a sob, and pressed his cheek against her head. "It's okay," he murmured.

"No it's not!" she said, voice muffled and wavering. "We almost lost you, Ed. We came so close to losing you."

"I'm still here." He made her lift her head. "You saved my life with that vaccine, Sloan."

Half a tearstained smile appeared on her face. "I was just the hands. You figured it out."

"Hey, whatever works." He smiled back. "Good guys won again, huh?"

She sniffled and nodded, and stood up. "Sure."

Ed picked up the necklet and fastened it around his throat. "So where's the popcorn?"

End.