Title – Freebird
Characters – Chief Robert Ironside, Sergeant Ed Brown, Mark Sanger
Word Count – 1830
Rating – PG-13 (for language)
Summary – Sometimes the Chief needs a little time on his own, even if no one else seems to agree.
A/N – Set sometime in the first two Seasons.


Freebird

The phone call in the night was an occupational hazard for a policeman in any city, even San Francisco. Ed Brown was awake instantly it began to ring. He didn't even check the time before he answered.

'Brown.'

'Ed? Get yourself over here.' Ed gave a sleepy half-yawn, not awake enough to appreciate the urgency in the tone. But he did know it was Mark Sanger, the Chief's aide. What was Mark doing calling him at… he looked at the clock by his bed… three o'clock in the morning?

'What's wrong?' he mumbled, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand.

'He'd gone on another one,' said Mark.

Ed grimaced and swore to himself, throwing off the covers as he rolled out of bed.

'I'm on my way,' he told Mark.

It didn't happen very often, four times in the past year. Ed had no idea what triggered it and he couldn't even guess. But every so often the Chief would go out, on his own, to some random bar and get drunk; no, not just drunk, but drunk drunk; the kind of drunk your liver never forgave you for.

He and Mark had hidden it from the Commissioner, from Eve, from everybody.

Struggling into yesterday's clothes and not bothering with a jacket, Ed staggered to the door, just remembering to grab his car keys from the bureau before he left.

The first time it had happened, Mark had called in a panic, saying the Chief was missing. It had taken them two hours to find him, and another two hours to get him home after he passed out in the parking lot by Eaton Street even with his wheelchair!

Afterwards, neither Ed nor Mark had mentioned it to Ironside, as it seemed awkward and unpleasant to bring it up in normal conversation. For his part, the Chief just pretended it hadn't happened. That was the pattern each time from then on, as well.

Ed drove as fast as he dared downtown through the empty streets, careful not to get a speeding ticket to add to his problems tonight.

Mark was waiting for him at the doors of Headquarters. As Ed pulled up, he ran over to the car and yanked the door open.

'Man, what took you so long?' he said, jumping in. 'The Chief's got an hour and a half on us!'

'Damn.' He hadn't realised it had been so long.

'You should have been quicker.'

Ed looked away with a frown. He'd done the best he could at three in the morning.

'Where do you want to start?' he asked. 'Any guesses?'

'The Chief didn't give away anything. He just vanished into the night. But he can't have gone that far.'

'I'm not sure that helps,' said Ed, pulling out into the street.

It was getting more difficult each time to find him, almost like he was setting them a more difficult task. And Ed knew that some day soon they were going to miss him, and the Chief was going to be the front pages news in the morning edition of the Post! Then what would Eve say? And what would the Commissioner say? And more importantly, what would the Commissioner have to do. He couldn't let a Special Consultant run over the city, drunk and disorderly in a wheelchair!

They took a chance, avoiding the places that he'd been before, and anywhere that would be too public or too obvious. Ironside, a man of great intellect, wasn't stupid even when he was stinking drunk.

They drove to the seedier end of the city, and started to search. They never asked the patrons of the bars, only the barmen if they had seen a man in a wheelchair. It never sounded urgent. It never sounded important, just like they were late to the drinking party.

But after an hour, they were no closer to finding him.

'Maybe we should call Eve,' suggested Mark as they met back at Ed's car.

'No,' he replied. While he would have been lying if he'd said he'd not thought the same, he didn't want to drag Eve into this. He didn't want to worry her, and she idolised the Chief. If she ever suspected he'd go out on an all-nighter, she would never forgive him. She would never forgive Ed or Mark for letting him, either.

'Well, what now, Sherlock?' said Mark as they got inside the Ford. 'Any more guesses?'

'Look, you're the one that dragged me into this!' snapped Ed.

'We've got to do something.'

Ed closed his eyes for a moment, thinking about he nice quite room and his comfortable bed. When he opened them, Mark was frowning at him.

'Let's try the Wharf,' he suggested.

Mark shrugged.

'Do you have a better idea?' asked Ed. 'Because now is a good time to tell me!'

'Ok, man, let's try the Wharf. But we'd better find him soon.'

They drove on, constantly on the look out for any sign of Ironside.

The Wharf was almost empty, all the shops and bars were closed, except two. Ed pulled the car beside on and Mark got out, then he drove the car down the street to the other one.

He didn't hold out much hope, but when he asked the weary barman, the man just jerked his thumb towards another door.

With a mumbled thank you, Ed headed over, suddenly filled with the urge to turn around and walk back out. He knew what to expect now, and the prospect made him nervous. By the door, he hesitated, licking his lips. But his sense of duty won over his natural dislike of the job at hand.

He pushed open the door, and there was the Chief, sitting quietly by an old chipped table, two empty bottles of bourbon beside him, and another half full one in his hand.

When he saw Ed, his face grew thunderous.

'What d'you want, Brown?' he slurred, folding his arms.

Ed drew a deep breath. He could see Ironside was drunk, there was something about the way he held himself in the chair that sense clear warning signals as loud as a siren. It wasn't going to be easy this time.

'We need to get you back to the office.'

'Really, Sergeant Brown?' said Ironside, calm, friendly and threatening all at the same time. 'What if I don't want to go home just yet?'

This whole situation made Ed extremely uncomfortable. He hated having to do this.

'I think you should.'

'You do? So does it matter what I think?'

'Chief…'

As they looked at each other, the door swung open again and Mark hurried inside. He stopped just behind Ed.

'Well I might have known you were in on this conspiracy too!'

'It's not a conspiracy, Chief, we just wanted to make sure you were alright.'

'Well, you've found out I'm fine, so now you can go home.'

'We can't just leave you here, Chief.'

'Why not? Afraid a helpless old man like me will get into trouble in the big, bad city?'

When it was put like that, it sounded unbearably patronising, and Ed looked away.

'I didn't ask you to come and find me, Sergeant Brown,' continued Ironside. 'I don't need to be fussed over like an infant!'

He glared at Ed, challenging him to say something. When Ed didn't reply, Ironside reached out to take another swig from the bottle, just waiting for Ed to speak.

The silence stretched out, and Ironside looked away to his bottle, unconcerned about the other people in the room.

'Chief…' started Ed.

'But it's because of this, isn't it!' Ironside said whipping round and whacking the side of the wheelchair. 'You think I need you to wheel me around, and I can't do it on my own, because I'm a cripple!'

'No!' snapped Ed. 'I do it because I'm your friend, though God alone knows why! And I do it because you are a stubborn old man who should know better than to drink himself into a stupor!'

'Stubborn?'

'Stubborn,' echoed Ed, his hands planted firmly on his hips. 'Cantankerous, ungrateful, ru…'

'And you!' interrupted Ironside loudly, pointing at Mark. 'Your just as bad, going crying to Ed every time I decide to go out for a drink on my own!'

'Don't start on me, man,' said Mark. 'I don't need this at four in the morning!'

'Then you should go home, and leave me in peace to get drunk.'

'You're drunk already,' replied Ed angrily.

'I'll decide when I've had enough!'

'And then what? You'll roll home?'

That did not please Ironside in the slightest.

'Just who the flamin' Hell do you think you are!' he growled.

'I'm your friend,' said Ed tightly, trying not to match the Chief's anger.

'Some friend! I don't want to be flamin' well rescued like some lost dog! And I don't need a flamin' baby-sitter!'

'And what kind of a friend would I be if I just left you here to drown yourself in whisky?'

'You'd be a friend that let me live my own life, for once!'

The two men glared at each other. With a terrible sinking feeling, Ed knew what was going to happen. Ed knew he was the one who was going to be backing down. This happened every single time, in every single goddamned argument they had, he never ever managed to get the last goddamned word in!

Ed turned to leave, but Mark caught his arm.

'Hey man, your not just going to walk out?' said Mark.

Ed yanked his arm away from the other man.

'Yes, I am, Mark. He's right. He can do whatever he likes. I'm not going to stop him.'

'But…'

'But nothing! I'm going home to get some sleep before I start work in four hours time. If you want a lift, come on!'

Ed sensed Mark hesitated, but he himself walked off, still heading for the door. Ironside was right, damn him. If he wanted help, he would ask for it. He heard Mark's footsteps just behind.

He had just touched the handle of the door, ready to give it a good, hard yank, when Ironside spoke.

'Ed,' he slurred. 'Since your going that way, I think I'll take that lift. If it's still on offer.'

To his intense shame, Ed was tempted to say no and storm out; he even opened his mouth, the word forming on his lips. Instead he looked down to the ground.

'Of course it's still on offer, Chief,' he said.

Ironside wheeled himself forward, much more slowly and more clumsily than usual, but neither Ed nor Mark moved forward to help, they just watched as Ironside trundled slowly up to the exit. Ed held the door open for him, his face poker-straight, hiding his anger.

Ironside looked up as he passed.

'Thank you,' he said.

Eyes still cast down, Ed sighed.

'Forget it, Chief. What are friends for?'