Sentinel Thursday Challenge #121: light, red and warm; And Epilogue for The Debt
Blair finished up the brief note and left it on the kitchen table. Sighing, he stared at it for a moment, and then looked around the darkening loft; night came early on the shortest day of the year. He'd loved living here, but his week of sufferance had passed just over a month before. He wished he could have afforded to leave more than the note. However, replacing what he'd lost in the explosion at the warehouse, or at least the water-damaged and incredibly expensive library texts, had eaten into his savings account - well, annihilated it, actually. And stocking the refrigerator and cupboards with some of Jim's favorite comfort foods for the holidays had pretty much tapped him out until his next grant payment and student loan installment went into his account in early January. Oh, he had enough to get by; he wouldn't starve. But he didn't have enough to buy a gift - not that Jim would expect one anyway.
Having laid out the eight hundred and fifty dollars rent just days before the warehouse had blown up, he hadn't had the cash to ante up for rent anywhere else and, with his savings gone, he needed to save both first and last months' rent before he could get himself another place. Once he'd wormed the grim financial facts out of him, Jim had been great about letting him stay rent-free for the past month, only expecting him to contribute to the shared food costs. But Jim liked to eat better than Blair was accustomed to, and steak was expensive. Well, meat in general on a regular basis was beyond his usual monthly outlay on groceries - the extra expenses just on food alone in the last few weeks, at the end of term when his resources ran short at the best of times, had been, well, shocking. Still, he grinned, he'd enjoyed the meals they'd shared together, so he didn't begrudge the cost.
But it wasn't just the matter of making ends meet. Though Ellison hadn't complained - much - about the infringement on his privacy, the rules spoke volumes about how disruptive a roommate was in his life. This loft was his home, his refuge. He didn't need the aggravation of unnecessary sensory stimulation here of all places, and Sandburg knew he added a dimension of noise, confusion, and weird scents from his teas and algae shakes and candles that Jim really did not need in his life.
It didn't feel right to just take off with no more than a written note of explanation. But he knew his friend well enough that he was pretty sure Jim wouldn't let him go without a ton of questions, like where he was planning to stay - and Jim wouldn't think much of his plan to crash in his office until he could afford the cost of a new place of his own. So it was better this way. Jim had some much-needed time-off coming up over the holiday, and he'd relax more completely if he had his space to himself. Man, he didn't even bother with a tree or other seasonal decorations because the confusion, the extra stimulation of lights and scent would only irritate him. Or, at least that's what Blair assumed when Jim had grunted and rolled his eyes at the tentative suggestion last weekend of maybe getting a tree. It was that reaction that had really brought home to Blair just how much of a disruption he was in Jim's home. His lips thinned as he scanned the note a last time.
Dear Jim, In keeping with the sentiments of the season, most particularly Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards men, my gift to you is peace in your own home. You've been really generous, man, and I'll always appreciate that you took me in when I needed a roof over my head, but I really don't want to take advantage of your goodwill. Enjoy your time off - rest up and relax, do whatever you most enjoy for fun. I'll see you back at the PD next week, after the holidays. If you need me for anything in the meantime, anytime day or night, just call my office number and I'll get right back to you. All the best of the season, Jim.
He'd already loaded his car with his stuff. Hoisting his backpack, with his precious laptop, over his shoulder, he turned toward the door.
And stumbled to his knees when the floor shimmied and violently heaved under his feet, while the air was filled with an ominous rumbling, like an invisible freight train passing through.
CDs and books on the shelves against the brick wall shuddered and some toppled to the floor, and the crockery and glassware in the cupboards behind him gave a prolonged rattle before settling back into stillness. Gulping, he waited tensely and winced when he heard the creak and crack of timbers followed by thunderous bangs and crashing sounds in the back hallway and outside. The streetlights outside went out, and people were shouting on the street and in the building around him, though he heard no cries of pain, only of alarm.
Rushing to the door, he yanked on the knob - but it wouldn't open. Squinting in the gloom, he could see that the frame had shifted, jamming the door in place. He pulled and pulled, but it wouldn't budge. Grimacing, he hurried to the backdoor and breathed a sigh of relief when it opened - only to find that part of the back hall's ceiling had collapsed and the corridor was impassable. Wheeling around, he loped into his room, to the window and the fire escape beyond. But the rusted bolts holding the metal framework to the brick had sheered off, and the emergency ladder had fallen to the alley below. Briefly, very briefly, he considered climbing out and dropping to the pavement, but it had to be nearly forty feet and he shook his head, unwilling to take the chance of breaking something.
Closing the window against the sleety wind, Blair jogged back into the main room, to the phone on the kitchen wall. But the line was dead. Hanging up the receiver, he looked around and shook his head, bitterly wishing his cell phone wasn't lying on the passenger seat of his car. There was no way out and, other than shouting from the balcony, no way of attracting attention. Sighing, his shoulders slumping, he realized he was trapped.
Well, he could be trapped in worse places. It wasn't like he was hurt or in trouble. So he didn't need to yell down to the street at people who might be able to help others in more dire need. Still, it felt odd, claustrophobic, to be unable to get out. He went back to the door and, bracing one foot against the wall, pulled with all his strength.
Irritated, biting off a curse, he gave up. When Jim came home and found the front door jammed, he'd get help to force it open from outside.
Things could be worse. A lot worse. He was safe and inside, out of the cold, blustery evening. Roaming back to the kitchen, he flicked the light switch - but nothing happened. The electricity was off. Which meant the heat was also off. The loft wouldn't exactly be a hothouse with the power off, but it was warm enough, if growing dark. And all his candles were packed and down in the car. Wonderful. Well, power would probably be restored soon, likely before the night was over. There was nothing much to do but wait. Wandering into the living room, Blair sank down on the sofa and crossed his arms in frustration.
So much for his plans of a quick, smooth getaway.
The PD building, being relatively new and up to the latest code, swayed but weathered the 6.2 quake with no structural damage. In MCU, the detectives shifted their focus automatically from their latest cases to implementing their respective roles as detailed in the Earthquake Contingency Plan. Phone lines were out and the computers were down. There was no power to the downtown or, as they quickly learned from Dispatch, to most of the city and more than half the suburbs. The epicenter had apparently been in the mountains to the east, close enough that the national news agencies were already saying the quake had been centred on Cascade. Immediately following the earthquake, the powerful generator in the basement kicked in, restoring power to the computers and bathing the office in the dull red glow of emergency lighting.
Courtesy of the patrol units that radioed in immediately, they soon knew that structural damage was minimal, though there was some - particularly in older neighbourhoods and buildings - along with presumed or known casualties. The good news was that the road systems and overpasses were largely intact, so police, fire and ambulances services could respond quickly. Water services were also intact, which was also good news. But the power outage left the late afternoon rush hour traffic in chaos. Several detectives were quickly deployed to assist in traffic control.
"Jim!" Simon called soberly as he strode from his office. "I've just heard that the heritage buildings at Rainier may have sustained the worst damage in town, particularly in basements and subfloors."
"Hargrove Hall?" he rasped, tensing.
Nodding, Simon's lips thinned. "Some of the flooring caved in and the stairwells to the basement are blocked. No way of knowing the full extent of the damage or determining how many casualties yet. Head on over there and find Sandburg. And then the two of you do what you can to help rescue services identify where to put their efforts."
Jim paled and swallowed hard, grateful that Simon was assuming that Sandburg was okay. But that damned storeroom that the kid used as an office was in the basement. Grabbing his coat, he raced out the door and down the stairwell to the underground garage.
Traffic was a nightmare, and he had to resort to his lights to clear a path through the congested streets. He tried calling Blair's office, but it seemed the phone lines were down at the university, too. Next, he tried Sandburg's cell; it rang, but there was no answer. Classes were over for the semester, he knew that. But Blair didn't have to have been in his office when the quake occurred. He could have been in the library, doing research. Hell, he could be anywhere.
By the time Jim got to Hargrove Hall, the security personnel were working with an Emergency Rescue crew to clear a path down one stairwell to the lower reaches that included a file room and archive for the departments in the building, various storerooms, rarely-used study halls - and Blair Sandburg's office. Shutting out the confusion around him, he tilted his head, closed his eyes and focused his hearing to determine how many people were trapped, where, and if any were evidently injured. He picked up either the voices or heartbeats of seven individuals, at least one of whom needed help quickly. Forcing away the awareness that none of those people was in the vicinity of Blair's office, an area of utter silence, he stated bluntly, "This is going to take too long. C'mon - we can gain entry through windows into at least part of the affected area."
Jogging out of the building and around to the side, two of the EMT guys on his heels, he waved toward the low windows at ground level. Many of the windows were shattered, some partially blocked by fallen stonework, but a quick examination proved he was right that entry would be swifter through this route. One window led directly into the file area and, in minutes, the sharp, broken glass was cleared away, the portal secured with portable jacks and he and the EMTs were inside, assessing the injuries of four file clerks, their supervisor and a teaching assistant. One was unconscious, and one had a broken arm, but the others were able to scramble out through the window frame, with minimal assistance.
Jim moved further into the building, skirting warily around large chunks of plaster and cement that had broken loose from the ceiling. He found a janitor, also unconscious, in a nearby storeroom. After alerting the EMTs to the presence of another victim, he continued on down the dark hallway to Blair's office. The door was locked, but he jimmied it open. Inside, he found several of the storage shelves had tipped over, their contents scattered in a jumble of paper, texts and artifacts, and part of the ceiling, over the window and battered sofa, had come down. The place was a mess, but most of the damage looked to be superficial.
He was relieved that Blair wasn't there ... but he wondered where his friend was. Once again, he tried Sandburg's cell, but it still rang unanswered. Grimly terminating the call, he left the office and returned along the hall to the file room. After helping evacuate the unconscious clerk and janitor, he left the shambles of the basement, crawling out through the window frame, and jogged to the parking lot. He wasn't sure whether to be frustrated or relieved when he realized the Corvair wasn't there. Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck and then turned back to render what aide he could, though he was reluctant to trust his senses too far without Sandburg there to back him up and ensure he didn't zone. For the next hour, cautiously extending his sense of hearing from time to time, he worked with rescue crews to find and assist individuals trapped in other heritage buildings on the campus.
The loft was growing cold and full darkness had fallen not long after the quake had hit. Blair considered turning on the gas fireplace, but vetoed the idea because he couldn't be sure the gas line hadn't been compromised by the quake. He had tried the door again, to no avail, and had shouted for awhile, hoping one of the neighbours would hear him and help push on the door while he pulled, but no one else seemed to be home. For the last twenty minutes, he'd stood at the balcony doors with his arms crossed for warmth, watching the still heavy and slow flow of traffic on the street below. More than once, he'd been tempted to go outside and call down to passers-by, to ask for help in getting the hallway door open. But he hesitated, feeling embarrassed at the idea of yelling, "Help!" from the balcony, like some distressed maiden, and he couldn't justify drawing someone from whatever other urgent errand they were on, even if it was just to get home to ensure their own families or homes were safe and secure, simply to force the door open. He was safe and, though the electricity and phone services still weren't working, so far as he could tell from what he could see of the street and the other buildings, the damage from the quake hadn't been great.
He wondered where Jim was, figuring his friend was probably helping address the aftermath of the earthquake. Chewing on his lip, he again considered yelling down to the street for help so that he could get outside and maybe track Jim down. Would Jim be needing his help? Was there any chance that Jim had been hurt in the quake? Galvanized by that thought, he told himself he had to find a way out of the apartment. Resolutely, he went out onto the balcony and yelled at some men hurrying past, attracting their attention. Swiftly, he explained his predicament and, with the goodwill engendered when disasters strike, the strangers agreed to see if they could help. In minutes, he heard voices in the hallway, and shouted to lead them to the right door. For ten minutes, they struggled to shove open the door while he pulled on it, all them grunting with effort.
But the damned thing wouldn't budge. "Sorry," one of them called. "You want us to see if we can get the fire department over here?"
"No," he called back, discouraged. "That's okay. I'm sure they're busy helping people in more trouble than I am. I'll be okay until morning, and ... well, thanks for trying."
They slapped the door in farewell and went on their way, leaving him frustrated and feeling distinctly impotent. Disconsolately, he sniffed in the chill and shivered. Returning to the living room, he huddled on the sofa under the mound of blankets he'd scavenged from his room. "There has to be a way out of here," he muttered, restlessly fingering the blankets he gripped tightly over his shoulders and under his chin. "If there was a fire, if I had to get out ..." he mumbled to himself. Inspiration struck. Rising, he returned to his room, feeling his way carefully in the pitch dark, and found the sheets he'd put into the laundry basket when he'd stripped the bed. Hastily, he knotted the corner of one to the corner of another, only to realise that two sheets wouldn't be enough. Rummaging in the linen closet, he pulled out one of the king-size sheets for Jim's bed, shook it open and tied it to the others. Then, he gathered the material into his arms and returned to the balcony.
"I hope this holds me," he murmured uncertainly after tying one end of his improvised rope to the balcony railing. The overall length was still short of reaching the ground, but if he dangled from the end, it wouldn't be much more than a foot or two drop to the pavement. Hunched against the driving, icy rain, he gave the metal a strong jerk, but it held fast. Swallowing hard, he tossed the sheets over the side, looped some of the cotton snugly around one arm and gingerly climbed over to stand awkwardly on the narrow cement lip. Taking a deep breath, muttering, "You can do this," he ensured a secure grip on the sheet and eased off the edge so that he dangled over the alley below. Very carefully, slowly, he let the material slip through his hands and gradually lowered himself down to the ground.
When he ran out of linen, he checked to see how high he still was and was relieved his feet weren't all that far from the pavement. He let go, dropping lightly, bending his knees and holding his arms out to keep his balance. When he was at last safe on the ground, he trembled with relief. Briefly, he looked at the dangling sheet and wondered if it was an open invitation to thieves, but there wasn't much he could do about that, short of climbing back up and imprisoning himself again in the loft, like Rapunzel in her tower. Besides, the wind was whipping it around and it wouldn't be that easy to catch hold of. His jaw tightened and he turned away. Regardless of the risks, finding Jim, finding out if Jim needed him, was more important than whatever stuff was in the apartment. Taking care not to slip on the icy pavement, he circled around the building to his car and gratefully slipped inside, out of the wind and wet. Grabbing his cell phone and switching it on, he was relieved to get a dial tone. Swiftly, he punched in Jim's number.
Jim flipped open his cell, and barked, "Ellison." When he heard Sandburg's voice, a wave of relief washed over him. "I'm fine - I'm at the university, helping to evacuate some people who were trapped. Are you okay?" He listened and nodded. "Yeah, you can meet me here. We're currently working in the Library."
When Blair arrived twenty minutes later, having been delayed by both the weather and the slow traffic, they got to work using Jim's senses to their maximum ability, first to ensure there were no further victims trapped in other parts of the Library, and then quickly moving from building to building around the campus to search for others who were caught inside damaged edifices. Based on the information gleaned from his sensory sweep, they were able to target those who needed help urgently, while also giving hope that help was on the way to others who simply could not get out on their own, and urging them to just be patient.
It was hard, exhausting work, heaving rubble out of the way, clearing pathways through damaged substructures, and it was frequently frustrating, having to wait while the infrastructure was shored up for safety while knowing someone badly needed assistance. Hours fled past, scarcely noticed, so focused were they on their work. Midnight came and went, but finally everyone who'd been trapped was freed, and the good news was that no one had been killed in the quake.
Wearily, almost numb with fatigue, they watched the last victim being loaded into an ambulance.
Sniffing against the cold, Jim looped an arm around Blair's shoulder. "Your office is a mess," he said.
"Huh? What?" Sandburg mumbled, one hand lifting to cover a yawn.
"Your office, Chief - part of the roof caved in onto that beat-up old couch, and a lot of shelves fell over."
"Oh," Blair sighed and blinked. He shook his head; so much for his plan to camp out there over the holidays. "Well, we'll need an axe to get into the loft," he replied, looking up at Ellison. "I was there when the earthquake hit, and the door to the front hall is jammed, won't open. And the back hall is blocked with debris from the ceiling. The fire escape broke off from the wall; it's toast."
"Great," Jim grimaced and shrugged. Frowning, he asked, "So, how'd you get out?"
"Don't ask, man," Blair replied darkly, with a slight shudder at the memory of dangling forty feet in the air over the alley.
Jim quirked a brow but was too tired to press the issue. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out his cell phone and called into dispatch, to find out if they were needed elsewhere. Grateful to get the word that they could call it a night, he turned Blair toward the parking lot where they'd left their vehicles. "We can go home," he said stoically. "I've got an axe in the basement storeroom."
Jim made short work of breaking down the door, and the lights came on just as they stepped into the icy apartment. Shivering, Blair headed straight across the living room and out to the balcony, to haul up the wet, half frozen sheets. Bundling them into his arms, he dashed back to the door. "I'm just going to throw these into the dryer," he called over his shoulder. Jim watched him quizzically and shook his head as he tried to imagine Blair climbing out over the balcony, wondering why Sandburg had gone to such extremes when he was safe and relatively warm inside. Shrugging as he hung up his coat, he debated between coffee and a beer, and decided coffee with a shot of whiskey would be the best bet to warm them both up.
He got the coffee maker going and then turned to inspect the apartment for any other damage, and spotted the note on the table. Curious, he wandered over, frowning as he read it. Sandburg had been planning to move out? To go where? His lips thinned and his jaw tightened in resistance to the idea. Why? Wasn't the kid comfortable living there?
The elevator groaned and creaked, and then he heard Blair's footsteps in the hall. Note in hand, he shifted to face the door and when Sandburg walked in, he demanded, "What's this?"
Startled by the tone, Blair looked from the note to the stormy expression on Jim's face. "Uh, well," he replied hesitantly as he peeled off his wet coat and kicked out of his soaking shoes, "I thought you'd like to get your privacy back. I mean, you've been really great, Jim, but ... well, I've been here over a month and I figured I should be moving on, you know?"
"Haven't you liked it here?" Jim asked sharply.
"Absolutely," Blair exclaimed. "I've loved living here, but that's not the point. This is your place, your home, man. You don't need me underfoot all the time."
Jim scowled at him and then set the note down to go back into the kitchen and pour two mugs of coffee that he liberally laced with hooch. "Where were you going, Chief?" he asked, thoughtful, as he handed one steaming mug to his friend.
"Well," Blair replied with no little chagrin as he raked his hair back. "I was going to crash in my office, but looks like that plan has bit the dust." Moving into the living room, he sat down on the sofa and blew on the hot liquid before taking a sip. "Mmm," he sighed, closing his eyes and savouring the warmth.
Jim followed him and settled into his chair, thinking with a twist in his gut how lucky they were that Blair hadn't already gotten to his office that evening, and wasn't stretched out on that couch when the ceiling fell in. "So, I guess you'll be staying then," he observed tentatively, his voice unsteady with the memory of the slab of concrete crushing the sofa in that basement office.
"I'm sorry, man," Blair said quietly, lifting his eyes to gaze earnestly at his friend. "I really wanted to give you some peace and quiet over the holidays. I'd like to give you more," he added, his brows arching and his lips twisting sadly, "but I ... well, I'm pretty tapped out."
"I told you I wasn't worried about the rent," Jim countered, aggrieved, still caught by thoughts of what might have happened so unnecessarily. "And why do you think you're in the way around here?"
"Jim, you agreed to a week, man, and it's been more than a month," he replied. "You don't owe me a roof for some indefinite period. I ... I know you like it quiet, and peaceful. And I know I'm, well, not someone you'd normally choose as a roommate, even if you did want one, which you don't."
Jim sighed and looked away. He took a sip of coffee and shook his head. "I thought things were working out okay," he muttered.
"You did?" Blair challenged, surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah, sure," he confirmed. "Having you here has made it easier to find time to work on the senses, and to talk about the cases. And, well ...." He hesitated and shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, I've enjoyed the company."
"You have?" Blair blinked and looked away, a slight smile beginning to play over his lips. "So ... you don't mind if I stay? I mean, for awhile?"
"Nope. I don't mind at all," he confirmed, almost but not quite nonchalantly. When Blair didn't say anything, he cut a look at the grad student and then pushed, "So, uh, you'll stay?"
"Yeah, if you're sure you don't mind," Blair nodded and then a bright smile bloomed over his tired, stubbled face. "I'd really like that, Jim," he added, his tone eager. "I really would. And as soon as I get my grant and loan in January, I can start kicking in on the rent."
"Good. Then it's settled," Jim replied, the tension in his shoulders easing. Looking around the loft, he went on, "We'll have to get the door fixed tomorrow." After a moment, he added, "And maybe get a tree."
"For Christmas," Jim clarified, sounding a bit defensive. "Why? Don't you want a tree?"
Blair grinned. "I think a tree would be really nice," he affirmed warmly.
"Yeah," Jim agreed with a slight nod and a slow smile as he relaxed back against the chair. Reflecting on the sharp fear he'd felt earlier, that Blair might have been hurt in the earthquake, he felt ... grateful that they were both okay and that the kid was going to stay. "Don't, uh, worry about gifts or anything," he muttered with awkward consideration. "I know money's short right now."
Blair's gaze fell away and he ducked his head, embarrassed to be so temporarily hard up for cash. "I, uh, I could cook dinner on Christmas," he offered, lifting his head just enough to peer at Jim through his tumbling curls.
"And clean up afterward?"
"You drive a hard bargain, man, but yeah, sure," Blair grinned. "For Christmas, I'll cook and clean up."
"Then that'll be the best gift I've had in years, Chief," Jim grinned and toasted his friend with his coffee mug.
Blair smiled but his gaze again dropped away to hide the surge of emotion he felt. His chest tightened, and he had to swallow hard. Maybe it was just that he was so tired. Or maybe it was the whiskey. He sniffed and nodded to himself and let out a long, slow breath. Maybe it was just that he was blown away by this man's generosity and subtle kindnesses. Maybe it was the feeling of having a place to call home. Maybe it was knowing that Jim liked having him around, and considered him a friend, not a millstone. Maybe it was just the simple reality that this was going to be the best Christmas he'd known in a very long time.
Maybe it was all of that.
"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, concern shading his voice and Blair laughed a little and shook his head, realizing that Jim was probably picking up on the physical signs of the feelings that were leaving him a little raw.
"I'm fine," he replied, his voice hoarse. Clearing his throat, he went on, "In fact, I'm great." Looking up, meeting Jim's gaze, his smile tremulous, he added almost shyly, "Thanks, Jim. For letting me stay. I, uh, I really do like living here."
Embarrassed by the evident gratitude, especially as he was only getting what he wanted, Jim looked away and shrugged diffidently. He yawned and stretched. "Well, I'm beat," he said. Gesturing toward the blankets still piled on the sofa, he asked, "Do I take it you'd stripped your bed and your sheets are downstairs in the dryer?"
"Yeah," Blair allowed as he pushed himself wearily to his feet.
"You can get them in the morning, Chief," Jim told him, also standing. "We've got lots of sheets. C'mon, let's get your bed made up. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."
Blair took their mugs to the sink while Jim got fresh bedding from the linen closet. As they went to work making up the futon, Jim asked, "So, uh, why didn't you just stay here after the quake - why'd you climb off the balcony? I thought you were afraid of heights."
"I am," Blair replied with heavy emphasis, but he lightened his tone as he continued, "But, um, well, I thought you might need me, you know? To help with your senses? I mean, I figured you'd be helping with rescues, if you weren't hurt or anything. My cell was down in the car, so, uh, well, I had to get to it. To see where you were. Not that ... that I was really worried, or anything. I knew you were probably okay and that you'd do alright without me, but, um, well, I just wanted to make sure."
Jim froze for a moment in surprise. Despite his fear of heights, Blair had climbed out over the balcony in the freezing rain and lowered himself to the ground with a flimsy sheet because he'd been worried - about him? Recovering, he shook a blanket out over the bed and they straightened it together before tucking in the bottom. "Thanks, Chief," he finally said quietly. Rallying, he added, "It made a difference, having you there." When Blair's face lit up with gratitude, he smiled and patted his friend on the back on the way to the door. "G'night, buddy."
Happiness sparkled in Blair's eyes as he murmured in reply, "G'night, Jim." And then, looking around his room, thinking about how he'd thought he'd never be sleeping there again and so glad that he was, he added with heartfelt warmth, "See you in the morning."
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