Now That Larry's Gone…
Note: This story is an epilogue to 'The Debt'…
"Oh, man," Sandburg moaned as he came through the door in front of Ellison and beheld the devastation of the loft. They'd hardly had time to clean up after the first ransacking by a hyperactive Barbary Ape and now said Ape had made another lightning hit before apparently once again taking off for parts unknown, despite the Animal Control staff who surrounded the building. Blair winced as he realized he'd forgotten to close the window in his room before rushing out that morning to try to get Leila La Croix to leave the questionable security of her apartment until the tension between the gangs and the cloud over Earl Gaines, her grandson, had been cleared up. It was pretty certain that the forgotten window had to be the way that Larry had gotten back inside. This was so NOT the way to show Jim how grateful he was for having been given a place to stay for the past week.
The grad student didn't need to be a sentinel to feel the frigid, rigid displeasure of the detective who silently entered the apartment behind him. "I'll clean all this up, Jim…and either replace or reimburse you for any breakage," Blair vowed quickly to offset the expected explosion, though how he'd afford to do that was something he didn't want to think about right then.
"Fine, whatever," Ellison muttered with a resigned sigh as he stiffly pulled off his jacket, surprising himself with a muted groan at the protest of bruised and stiff muscles. Grimacing, he was irritated to think he must be getting old to be so sore from having helped Earl take the crooked cop, Williams, down. So he'd had to jump from one vehicle to another and got tossed off onto the pavement. Big deal. It wasn't like he hadn't pulled stunts like that before, any number of times. But it was getting harder to just get up and keep going, as if he'd done no more than take a leisurely stroll in the park. Once the adrenaline high had burned off, he'd really started to ache.
Blair turned at the soft exhalation of pain, frowning as he watched Jim stiffly hang up his coat. "What's wrong?" he asked with concern. "You look like you're really hurting."
"Just a little stiff, Junior," Jim replied, his expression schooled to flat neutrality.
Studying him, Sandburg's eyes narrowed with concentration as he shook his head. "No…it's more than a little stiffness," he observed as he watched Jim walk carefully across the floor to the refrigerator to pull out a beer, his shoulders and back tight. "What happened?"
"Look, it's nothing…" Jim began, but grimaced again with pain as he bent to grasp the bottle when a sharp pang sliced up his back.
"Yeah, I can see that," Blair replied sarcastically, shaking his head at the macho behaviour as he really looked at Ellison and finally noticed the dirt and stains on his dark shirt and jeans that a quick brush off hadn't been able to remove. "Why don't you go soak in the tub while I clean up this mess?"
Ellison was about to refuse when he paused and reconsidered. Actually, it wasn't a bad idea and might soothe his aching muscles. Nodding, he turned away and headed toward the bathroom while Blair hustled to the refrigerator to pull out a bag of peas. "Hey," he called, tossing them to Jim when the older man turned back toward him, "you might want to put this on the bruise that's starting to come out on your jaw to keep the swelling down."
With a slight, rueful grin, Jim quirked a brow but took the improvised 'ice pack' with him into the bathroom.
Left alone, Blair shrugged off the mildly garish plaid sport coat and draped it over the back of a chair. The nerdy jacket wasn't a particularly welcome addition to his wardrobe, but it was the only one he'd been able to find that fit at the second hand clothing shop he'd dashed into earlier that day for something that approximated the look of a very minor bureaucrat. Rolling up his sleeves, he gazed with dismay at the havoc Larry had created as he moved to snap off the television that Larry had left blaring. Pillows and the afghan were strewn on the living room floor, CD cassettes were scattered everywhere along with shredded morning newspaper and the remains of the TV Guide. Cans had been pulled from the kitchen cupboards and were lying haphazardly on the counter and it looked like a couple of mugs and a dish or two had wound up in pieces on the floor in the midst of strewn sugar and flour. Sighing, Blair looked up toward Jim's bedroom and wondered what damage had been done upstairs. Well, no time like the present to find out, he thought as he headed up the steps. Jim's room was the first priority, so that it would be ready for him to lie down once he finished his bath.
A half-hour later, Ellison emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his hips, still moving stiffly but feeling somewhat better for having soaked his abrasions and bruises clean. By then, Blair had changed the sheets of the bed upstairs, which had been torn apart by the hyperactive ape, though there was little he could do with the ripped bedspread. Feeling badly about the damage, he'd quickly straightened up the rest of the bedroom and living room and was just finishing the clean up of the kitchen when he heard Jim's steps in the hall.
Glancing up as Ellison mounted the stairs, Blair gasped as he saw the darkening bruises and multiple scrapes on his friend's back, shoulders, arms and legs. "God, Jim, what happened to you!" he exclaimed. "You look like you went ten rounds with Godzilla!"
"Something like that," Ellison grated. "I've had worse," he added as he continued up the steps. "Nothing's broken."
Rolling his eyes, Sandburg went into the bathroom to snag the bottle of liniment he'd spotted in the medicine cabinet a few days before and then he headed quickly up the steps in Ellison's wake. The older man had just pulled on a pair of loose sweat pants and looked up with a frown at the sound of Blair on the stairs.
"And you're in my bedroom because…?" Jim snapped repressively, his jaw tight, not appreciating the invasion of his personal space.
"Because I'm going to work some of this into your back," Sandburg replied, not in the least bit intimidated by the glare as he held up the small bottle, "so that you might have half a chance of being able to actually move tomorrow."
"That's not necessary," Ellison grunted as he turned toward his bed, tired and irritable with the pain.
"Yeah, Jim, I think it is," Sandburg answered quietly. "C'mon, man, let me help you out here. It's no big deal and it'll make a huge difference tomorrow."
Rolling his sore shoulders as he kneaded the left one with his right hand, Jim had to admit to himself that the kid was right. He was being stubborn to no good purpose and could use the help to treat bruises and scrapes he couldn't reach on his back. Nodding, he relaxed his reflexive resistance. "All right, thanks, Chief," he mumbled.
"Just lie down on your stomach," Blair directed briskly, moving forward to kneel by the side of the bed when Jim did as he was asked. First, he softly coached Jim into a light meditative state conducive to relaxation. Getting Jim to close his eyes against the late afternoon sun streaming through the skylight, keeping his voice low and soothing, he walked the older man through deep breathing and muscular relaxation for almost five minutes, wishing he could do more to somehow dampen the level of pain Jim had to be experiencing. Then, for the next twenty minutes, Sandburg silently worked to loosen tight muscles, easing out the aches, soothing the strain. When he finished, he was pleased, and oddly touched, to see that Jim had drifted off to sleep. Gently, he eased the light sheet and blanket over his friend to protect him from the evening's chill, and then padded quietly downstairs to clean up the damage of Hurricane Larry in the small room where he'd been crashing since his own place had blown up.
When he'd finally gotten the whole loft sorted out to some measure of what it had been, Sandburg ambled wearily into the kitchen to plug in the kettle and make himself a mug of tea. Leaning against the counter as he waited for the water to boil, he sagged a little in unconscious discouragement. His life was, to put it mildly, a disaster. Almost everything he'd owned, as little as that was, had either been blown up or damaged beyond salvaging by smoke-and that included most of his clothes, let alone all his furniture. Any hope he'd had of just moving the stuff into storage until he found another place had evaporated once he'd had a chance to really check out the damage the morning after the drug lab had exploded into his world. His week of grace here in the loft, hard won by desperate cajoling on his part, was up and other than the back seat of his car or the battered couch in his office, he had nowhere else to sleep. And he'd really only cajoled so hard in order to have a place for Larry as well. Now that Larry was gone, well, it was time for him to move on, too.
Once the water started to bubble in the kettle, he unplugged it and poured the boiling water over the tea bag. Absentmindedly dunking the bag repeatedly with a spoon, he pondered his options. While he had a reasonable stipend as a teaching fellow, it would still take more than a month to save up enough to rent another apartment, assuming he also wanted to eat during that period of time. And, with the damages done by Larry, the dishes to be replaced, the torn linens that couldn't be repaired, let alone his own need for at least one new pair of jeans and a couple of shirts, maybe a new sweater since winter was coming…well, make that at least two months, maybe even three. There were friends he could call, but the best he could hope for was to crash on someone's couch, invading their privacy and having none of his own. The couch in his office was a better option than that and, hey, it was a short commute to his desk.
Sighing, he dumped the tea bag in the garbage and turned to survey the loft. It was a nice place-a little barren maybe and in need of some colour and some plants, but nice. Pausing, he considered the place from the point of view of a professional observer. It was bland, even sterile, in appearance, an environment that would put limited strain on weary Sentinel senses, but there wasn't anything here that would help relax or soothe those senses. Biting his lip, he considered the fact that the place had been 'decorated', such as it was, by Jim before his senses had come on-line. So, was that an unconscious drive to make the place 'safe' without realizing he was catering to senses he didn't even know he had? Or was it something sadder…a place that was somewhere to sleep but had never really been made into a 'home'? There was no warmth here, no creature comforts. Shaking his head, Blair felt a stab of sorrow-Jim apparently wasn't any easier on himself than he was with other people.
And for the first time, Blair wondered who took any particular care of this man who gave everything he had to protect and safeguard others. From the look of things, no one, not even Jim Ellison himself, took any interest in ensuring Jim Ellison's comfort.
Still, it was a nicer place than anywhere he'd crashed in a long time-he shivered with the memory of the cold warehouse and his co-inhabitants, the rats. It had been good of Jim to take him in, especially with no notice, not to mention with an unusually aggressive little ape. No doubt about it, Blair thought bemusedly, exposure to too much television violence has definitely driven the little guy around the bend. Pushing his hair back behind his ear, he hoped the effects were only temporary and that Larry would settle down again… assuming he'd eventually ever be caught and anyone would know if he calmed down or not. Blair's expression was regretful as he worried about the little primate's well being.
There's a youth hostel downtown, Blair reflected then, going back to his own preoccupation about finding a new place to sleep, as he set the mug down on the table and went to get his backpack, pulling out his laptop and a couple of reference books. Maybe he could crash there, if they weren't already full up.
Setting aside the question of where he'd be sleeping the next night, he set to work on preparing his lecture for the following morning's class. As for the grumbling of his empty stomach, well, he just ignored that, figuring that it was one thing to share a meal with Ellison in the man's home and another to rummage in his cupboards and refrigerator when the guy was sound asleep. Seemed a little too intrusive and presumptive, somehow-too familiar, as if he were making himself at home, and he knew he didn't have the right to do that. He might be starting to think of Jim as a 'friend', but he didn't delude himself that Ellison felt that way about him. Theirs was a relationship of convenience, not one of shared interests other that the reality of Jim's senses…he just wasn't someone Jim would have ever voluntarily chosen to share space and time with, and he knew it. But, that was fair enough-Jim wasn't the sort of guy Blair would have sought out for a deep, meaningful friendship either in the normal course of events.
Later, just before he headed to his own temporary bed, Blair made up a list of things to buy after he'd finished his class and before he headed downtown to the PD. There were the damaged and broken items that needed replacement, but he also added a few other things to the list that he thought might be more appropriate and soothing for a Sentinel's heightened senses-things like gentle soap and hypoallergenic laundry detergent, natural cleaning products and good quality, smooth linens for Jim's bed to replace the less comfortable sheets Blair had found when he'd changed the bed. Looking around the loft, lit now with soft lamplight, he chewed his lip and then wrote down, 'plants, candles…nutmeg?' The plants would bring some natural and unobtrusive colour, as well as be restful and refresh the air. The candles, though their scent would be too slight for normal senses, could bring just a touch of restorative vanilla to the living area and maybe lavender to promote restful sleep upstairs, and unshelled nutmeg would give the kitchen a subtle homey scent-best of all, the three scents would complement one another, not clash and cause olfactory irritation. Upon further reflection, he added, 'sleeping mask' to the list. With all the night stakeouts Jim did, and the need to sleep through the day, he could use a little protection from the light streaming in through the skylight upstairs.
It was little enough to give as a gift to say 'thank you' for having taken him in and given him a bed and meals for the past week, especially considering the havoc Larry had created.
And if it pretty much emptied his bank account, so what? It was only money and he'd still have his one hundred dollar bill emergency fund if things got truly desperate before his next payday rolled around.
The next morning, Blair was up bright and early to strip his bed and take the linens down to the basement to be washed and dried before he headed out to his 10:00 am class. He tossed in Jim's discarded clothing and the used towels in the bathroom hamper for good measure, hanging fresh ones in anticipation of Ellison wanting a shower before he headed into work. Then he picked up the morning paper and fresh bagels and croissants from the bakery downstairs, and made coffee when he came back upstairs. It was only then that he opened up the paper and goggled at the photos on the front page that some alert amateur photographer had captured of an intrepid police detective leaping between vehicles and then being thrown off to hit the pavement hard in his determined effort to stop a felon from escaping.
God, no wonder Jim was covered in bruises, Blair thought, his eyes wide. The man is seriously nuts!
Looking up toward the loft, he added silently to himself, But also very brave… The young grad student was suddenly glad he'd been there the previous evening to maybe help ease some of the pain Jim had been suffering as a result of his commitment to his job and the community of Cascade.
When he heard Jim stirring, he put on the bacon and prepared the omelet mixture to pop into the oven…a healthier method of cooking than frying would be. By the time Jim had had his shower and had returned downstairs, Blair was putting breakfast on the table.
Ellison gave him a wry, knowing look but Sandburg shook his head, giving the older man a grin in return. "It's not 'courtship behaviour', Jim, I promise," Blair said with laughter in his voice, holding up his hands, his wide-eyed gaze the very picture of innocence. "Just my way of saying 'thanks' for putting me up and for not exploding when you saw the mess when we got home yesterday."
Smiling sparingly in return, Jim nodded and picked up the paper as he sat down, scowling when he saw the photos of his heroic actions the day before. Catching the look, understanding that Jim didn't like the publicity, Blair asked quietly as he dished up their portions, "How are you feeling today? Still hurts, I bet."
"Not bad," Jim replied with a slight shrug of indifference. "Your massage really helped, Chief…thanks." Though the gratitude was muted, the tone neutral, Jim was in point of fact quite surprised to realize when he'd awakened that morning that he'd relaxed enough the evening before to fall asleep while Sandburg was still working on his back. He didn't usually let his guard down so unequivocally with anyone, let alone someone he barely knew and whose hyperactive behaviour and non-stop chatter he often found irritating. But it was certainly true that the massage had helped-his muscles were sore but not screaming with stiffness and the solid sleep had helped to fully restore his energy.
"Good, I'm glad," Blair answered simply as he set their plates on the table and then poured two mugs of coffee. "If you leave me your key, I'll lock up when I head off to Rainier and bring it back to you when I see you at the PD later this afternoon."
"Okay," Jim agreed, turning his attention back to the newspaper as he ate breakfast. "This is good," he acknowledged, almost absently, but Sandburg beamed at the praise.
Dumping the shopping bags on the counter, Blair pulled out the new sheets along with the non-allergic, scentless laundry detergent and fabric softener and headed straight down to the laundry room. While the sheets were being washed and softened, he cleaned up the breakfast dishes and then sorted out the rest of the things he'd bought, washing and putting away the dishes to replace those that had been broken and placing the unshelled nutmeg nuts in their small mesh basket on the center of the table. The new cleaning supplies went into the cupboard and he packed up the others to store in the basement so that Jim wouldn't inadvertently keep using the harsh products. The gentle, natural oatmeal soaps went into the bathroom, one on the sink and the other on the bathtub ledge. The two thick rounded, disparate sized but plain and simple beige vanilla candles were placed discreetly on the bookcase, and then he carried the lavender candle and the new forest green comforter upstairs. Watching the clock, knowing he was going to be cutting it close if he was going to meet Jim on time, he dashed down to the basement to toss the sheets into the dryer and then he went back out to his car to haul in the half dozen large, leafy plants he'd bought, arranging them in the corner by the balcony doors. Once the sheets and new pillowcases were dry, he made up the bed and left the sleeping mask on the bedside table. The clean towels were folded and put away in the small linen closet and he left the clean clothing in a neat folded pile on the dresser.
Heading back downstairs, he took a last look around to make certain the place was as pristine as he could make it and then retrieved his duffel bag, already packed with his few paltry belongings, from the spare room and locked up the apartment. It was past time to meet Jim downtown.
"You're late, Chief," Jim growled as he stood and snagged his jacket, shrugging it on as Blair approached his desk. Taking the younger man unceremoniously by the arm, Ellison turned him back around toward the elevators.
"Uh, sorry…had a few errands," Blair replied hurriedly as he picked up his pace to keep up with his friend. "Where're we going? I thought we just had to finish up the reports on the Williams' case this afternoon."
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too," Jim acknowledged as he waited impatiently for the elevator to come back up. "But there was an explosion in a chemical warehouse last night that killed the watchman and burned down the buildings on either side. We need to check it out."
"Wouldn't that be Arson's job?" Blair asked, frowning over the death of the innocent victim and confused about why they were involved.
"They'll be there, too," Jim nodded. "But since there was a death, and given the seedy reputation of the owner, Jake Styles, we need to check it out as well." He handed Sandburg some folded sheets of paper as he continued, "This is a list of the chemicals that had been stored in the building. Nothing of any particular concern, nothing hazardous."
"But you think there might have been stuff stored there that's not on this list, right?" Sandburg asked then and Jim turned an approving look at him.
"You're quick, Einstein," the detective observed. "Could be there were illegal substances in the building."
"And you're going to 'nose around'," Blair surmised, his voice dropping meaningfully.
"Exactly," Jim acknowledged with a sharp nod. "I need you there to make sure I don't slip off to la-la land if I get lost in the various odours."
"Ah, Jim," Blair warned as they stepped into the elevator, "shouldn't there be some environmental specialists there? Some stuff can be pretty toxic and with your, ah, sensitivities, well…who knows how your system might react?"
"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" Jim replied sardonically as he punched the button to take them to the parking garage in the basement. "Unless we find evidence of hazardous, toxic substances, there's no justification for calling in the HazMat team…so, for the record, we're just looking into the death of the watchman."
They hadn't been at the site of the burned out and gutted warehouse for five minutes before Ellison started sneezing, his breathing getting raspy, while a headache started pounding behind his eyes. Pulling on his arm, Blair tried to draw Jim back outside into the fresh air. "Jim, I don't think this is a good idea, man," he murmured, "I think we should get you out of here."
"Relax, Darwin," Jim snapped, his eyes narrowed with concentration as he blinked against the watering of his eyes. Sniffing, he tried to place the various scents he was picking up as they moved through the blackened interior, only to sneeze again. "Damn it," he muttered. "Help me out here, would you?"
"Uh, yeah, okay," Blair replied uncertainly, nervously pushing his fingers through his hair as he quickly considered what to suggest that might be useful. "Um, how about you try isolating the smells you recognize first, you know, like the burned smell of wood and plastic, and then set them aside to gradually hone in on the less obvious, foreign chemical scents." He pulled out the papers Jim had given him and scrounged in his pocket for a pen and then laid a light hand on Ellison's back. "Close your eyes and concentrate on what you can smell…tell me each individual scent so I can record it and check off this list…if you come up with something not on the list, I'll let you know."
Nodding, Jim closed his eyes and unconsciously anchored himself to both Sandburg's touch and the sound of the younger man's heartbeat. One by one, he began to identify and isolate the thick, heavy odours that surrounded them. It was hard, frustrating work and he had to grit his jaw against the powerful smells that assaulted him, burning his nostrils and making his eyes tear. But Blair kept up a constant soft litany, telling him he was doing great, to not struggle but let the scents emerge, and the encouragement helped Jim believe he really could do this.
But it was a whole lot worse than trying to identify scents from a strip of yarn and more frustrating and irritating to his senses than sniffing a bunch of bottles of varying natural fragrances.
Finally, one pungent odour with an underlying metallic taste to it caught his attention. It didn't have the clean scent of benzine, which was supposed to be the principal chemical stored here for use by hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The unknown scent was more subtle than chlorine, but seemed similar somehow.
"This way," Jim muttered, blinking his stinging eyes as he led Sandburg deeper into the burned out hulk of the warehouse toward the far corner. The irritation of his eyes and nostrils worsened, and he could feel a burning sensation in his throat and bronchial tubes, the bitter odour and fumes causing a wracking cough so strong it almost made Ellison gag.
"Jim, hey, you're getting worse," Blair objected, becoming seriously alarmed, as he tried again to pull Ellison out of the charred remains of the building. "You need to get out of here, man!"
"Just give me a minute, Chief," Jim grated, his voice raspy as he sharply pulled his arm free from Sandburg's grip, but he slowed as he approached a stack of blackened metal barrels, two of which had been blown open by the force of the explosion that had rocked the building, and several others were cracked. A large puddle of viscous liquid stained the cement flooring and Jim held an arm out, to block Sandburg from unwarily stepping into it. Cautiously, Ellison skirted around the puddle and then bent to use his handkerchief to rub the smoke residue off the lettering stenciled on the outside of one of the barrels. A black representation of a skull and crossbones, the universal symbol of deadly toxins, was revealed along with the chemical formula for what was in the container. As he'd expected from the scent, he was looking at a key element for the creation of illegal synthetic drugs.
"Bingo," Jim sighed and stood, a little too quickly. Suddenly dizzy, he swayed and, with a wordless exclamation of alarm, Blair reached out to grab and steady him. Pulling one of Jim's arms around his shoulders, and settling one arm firmly around Jim's waist, Blair took most of the larger man's weight and, stumbling, practically hauled Ellison out of the warehouse.
"Easy, Jim!" Blair cajoled, sounding panicked. "Damn it, I told you this was dangerous!" he muttered, his voice cracking with anxiety as words poured out, the only safety valve he had to release his very real burgeoning fear for Jim's well being. "But would you listen to me? Oh, no. You had to push it too hard, too far. Man, you could have done yourself some serious damage here."
Once they got outside, Blair yelled at the Arson investigators. "Hey, I need some help over here!" he called urgently. "Anyone got any oxygen?"
Jim slid to his knees, his descent slowed and supported by Blair, who knelt beside him, continuing to support his weight.
"Can't…can't get my breath!" Ellison gasped as darkness flickered on the edge of his vision.
"You're okay, you'll be okay," Sandburg chanted, easing Jim down to sit on the ground as he supported Ellison's shoulders and head against his chest. Lifting his face toward the other investigators, Blair cried out again, "Would you hurry it up!" He really hoped those guys carried basic medical emergency supplies in their vehicles. As a minimum, surely one of them would be calling for an ambulance.
One of the fire investigators raced over with a small, portable cylinder of oxygen. Mumbling hasty thanks, Sandburg quickly fitted the mask over Jim's mouth and nose while the other guy turned on the flow of oxygen.
"Just breathe, Jim," Sandburg directed, his voice low, encouraging, full of a confidence he didn't feel. "Slow, easy breaths, not too fast…deep, that's it. You're doing good…good. You'll be fine, man, just fine."
"What happened?" demanded the arson investigator, a middle-aged, paunchy guy with graying hair.
"There's toxic liquid in some barrels in the back right corner," Blair replied grimly. "Some of it has leaked out onto the floor. You'd better get the HazMat team in."
"Got it," the guy said as he stood and turned away, jogging back to his vehicle to call in the appropriate experts and to begin blocking off the area in case of contamination of the air. Another investigator, a brisk woman with short blond hair approached and told Blair she'd called an ambulance.
"Cancel it," Jim grated, his head clearing with the help of the oxygen.
"Jim, you should be checked out…" Sandburg protested.
"I'm fine," Ellison grunted, fumbling at the mask, but Sandburg batted his hand away.
Snorting, Sandburg vigorously contested the point. "You nearly passed out and you could hardly breathe. Who knows what that stuff did to your lungs? You are going to the hospital and that's that. No arguments …you hear me?"
Rolling his reddened, chemically irritated eyes, Ellison would have liked to argue further, but the truth was he felt like hell. His throat was burning and his chest felt tight. "Fine," he muttered unhappily. "But you can drive me in. I don't need an ambulance." To prove it, he pushed himself away from Sandburg's supportive grip to sit up on his own. Pulling off the oxygen mask and handing the equipment to the young woman, he added, "Just give me a hand up."
Resigned, Sandburg stood and helped Ellison to his feet. Keeping a steadying arm around his friend, Blair guided Jim back to the blue Ford SUV and helped him into the passenger seat. Ellison fumbled in his jacket pocket to pull out the keys which he passed over to the younger man. "Just try not to hit anything on the way, okay, Junior?" he rasped.
"Funny, Jim," Blair grated, seriously worried as he snapped the seat belt around Ellison, closed the door and headed around to the driver's side. "Give me strength," he muttered to himself. "Damn, stupid, macho, he-man hero types…"
"I heard that, kid," Jim chided as Blair climbed in and started up the engine.
"I'm sure you did, Jim," Sandburg replied dryly, worry making his voice sound harsh and angry as he turned to glare at his friend. "The question is, why wouldn't you listen to me earlier when I said you shouldn't be in there in the first place!"
"Had a job to do," Ellison rasped. "We found the stuff and we can nail Styles' ass."
Steering the vehicle out of the alley and into the flow of traffic, Blair sighed. This guy had absolutely NO sense of self-preservation! How had he managed to stay alive this long? And he wouldn't work with a regular partner! Ellison was going to get himself killed if he didn't have someone to watch his back and haul him out of dangerous situations he was too stubborn to acknowledge or too selfless to care about in his passionate commitment to do 'his job'…
…the idea of Jim getting killed in the line of duty made Blair feel physically ill.
Well, that wasn't going to happen. Not if he had anything to say or do about it. He might not be a cop, but he'd be damned if he was going to let Jim get into dangerous situations like this alone.
Sandburg wasn't really aware that, for the first time, he wasn't only driven by his passionate interest in learning, his desire to complete his dissertation or even Jim's capabilities as a sentinel. He was too concerned about the health and continued well being of the man beside him to worry about anything else at that moment.
By the time they got to the hospital, Jim was feeling a lot better, if still a bit dizzy and nauseated. The doctor checked him out and insisted that he be put on oxygen for another half hour while the blood tests were processed and calls were made to the Fire Department to see if the Arson squad had identified the toxic substance. Blair was surprised when they took a sample of his blood as well, not having considered the fact that he'd been as exposed as Jim had been to the stuff. Sandburg wasn't worried about himself; he figured Jim's reaction had more to do with his hypersensitivity than with the limited exposure they'd had to whatever that poisonous crap had been.
While they waited, Sandburg called Captain Simon Banks to tell him what had happened and to relay the information that Jim wanted one of the other detectives to liaise with the Arson and HazMat squads to get the information necessary to obtain a warrant for Styles' arrest. Blair was impressed with the concern in Simon's voice when he learned one of his men was being treated in Emergency-impressed and reassured that maybe someone in the detective's life did care what happened to Jim after all.
It was almost an hour before Ellison was cleared to go home and by then a superficial rash had erupted on his skin. The doctor figured the symptoms were temporary, a kind of allergic response since Blair seemed to be fine. The physician gave Ellison a shot of antihistamine along with a sample tube of calamine lotion before sending him on his way, with the caution that he needed to shower as soon as he got home-preferably with hypoallergenic soap.
Blair drove his friend home and helped Jim up to the loft. As he was peeling Jim's coat from the taller man's shoulders, Ellison muttered, "Maybe we should have stopped for some of that fancy soap they talked about-I don't have any of the 'hypoallergenic' stuff." Truth was, he felt like a wimp for wishing he had the right stuff, but the itch of the rash was driving him crazy.
"Yeah, man, you do; I put some oatmeal soap in the shower earlier today," Blair assured him as he helped Jim to the bathroom. "You need any help…"
"I've been taking showers for longer than you've been alive, kid," Jim replied repressively, though he gave Sandburg a quizzical look, wondering about the new soap.
"Right, well, just holler if you need anything…and toss out those clothes. I'll take them downstairs and wash them later," Sandburg directed. "I don't want you touching them again. And don't forget to cover yourself with the calamine lotion after your shower-it'll help ease the itchiness."
While Jim showered, Blair heated up a can of chicken noodle soup and then made the detective eat all of it before helping him up to his room. "It's got natural antihistamines in it," Blair explained. "That's why 'old wives' recommend it for treating colds and the 'flu."
The effects of the medication and the soup, added to the debilitating effects of the fumes, left Ellison feeling wrung out and utterly exhausted. His skin still itched though the shower and the medication had definitely helped, but he could swear he could still smell the noxious odour of the toxic fumes. The light hurt his eyes and, to put it mildly, he was miserable. Blair got him tucked into bed, insisted he put the sleeping mask on and again walked Jim through the process of consciously relaxing to distract him from the itchy irritation of his skin while he smoothed calamine lotion the hospital had provided over the rash on Jim's back. And then, before going back downstairs, Sandburg lit the lavender candle, knowing the soft soothing fragrance would supplant the memory of the chemical smell and relax the Sentinel into sleep.
He then cleaned up the kitchen and took Jim's clothing, the old and nubbly sheets he'd taken off the bed that morning and the damp towels down to the laundry room. Once that was started, he headed out to the truck to grab his backpack before climbing back upstairs. Though he was pretty sure Jim would be fine, Sandburg didn't feel comfortable leaving the man alone all night in case he had other delayed reactions to the chemicals he'd inhaled. So, Blair got out his books and his laptop, setting up an impromptu workstation on the coffee table. Once his lecture for the next day and the laundry were done, he padded quietly up the steps to check on Jim and to extinguish the candle. Reassured that Ellison seemed to be breathing okay and was deeply asleep, he went back to the living room and began to correct essays from his fourth year students…and fell asleep on the couch sometime well after midnight.
His last thought was the hope that whatever chemicals they'd been exposed to hadn't permeated his own clothing so much that he'd be an irritant to Jim the next morning. But there wasn't much he could do about it…the rest of his gear was in the duffel bag in the trunk of his car, which was still parked at the Police Department downtown.
Ellison woke first the next morning and was initially a little confused. He'd been too wasted the night before to really notice much, so the sleeping mask was the first surprise. And then he noticed the soft, smooth feel of the sheets against his skin. Peeling off the mask, he checked out the new sheets and it was then that he also noticed the new duvet. And the place smelled different…nice, but different. Sitting up and looking around, he spotted the candle on the triple dresser and one brow lifted in silent appraisal of this little addition to his room's accoutrements. He stood and rolled his shoulders as he stretched and reached for his robe on the foot of the bed. Looking down over the railing, he spotted Sandburg sprawled on the sofa, fast asleep…still in the clothes he'd been wearing the day before.
Shaking his head, bemused that the kid didn't seem to know when it was time to go to bed, Ellison headed downstairs to the kitchen to start the coffee-and noticed the scent of the unshelled nutmeg on the table. It was a soft, pleasant spicy scent that mingled well with the coffee beans. And there was something else… vanilla? Shrugging, he headed to the bathroom for his shower, and this time he really noticed the oatmeal soap that had been substituted for his usual strong deodorant bar. As he showered and shaved, he reflected that Sandburg had been busy the day before, getting in new supplies and replacing what that ape, Larry, had destroyed.
Ellison found himself pleasantly surprised by the effort and contribution Sandburg had made in restoring what had been damaged, and that he'd done so quickly with no fuss. He wouldn't have expected the kid to have replaced the bedspread, and sure hadn't ever considered Blair would lay out the bucks for such good quality sheets. Somehow, Jim hadn't thought Blair would be that 'responsible', and he realized he'd been wrong-that he'd been judging the kid on his bohemian appearance and blithe chatter, his easy-going manner, thinking the kid was superficial-and he'd been precipitate in his judgments. No fool, Ellison knew the sheets, the soap and the candles as well as the nutmeg had all been selected with a very deep if subtle awareness of the discomfort he experienced because of his heightened senses.
It was disconcerting. For a very great part of his life, Jim couldn't remember anyone 'taking care of him'. Not since he was a very young boy. He was grateful, but also puzzled. Why would the kid have bothered? Why would he care?
Moving quietly so as not to disturb Sandburg, Jim dressed and then went down to start breakfast. Pouring himself a coffee, and sipping at the hot beverage carefully, he idly looked around the apartment and spotted the plants in the corner. Tilting his head, he studied them and wondered why he hadn't thought to buy any himself…the green foliage was attractive and added a new dimension to the large room. Sardonically, he wondered at how much the kid was making himself at home…candles, plants. The grad student might claim he wasn't engaged in the 'courtship behaviour' of someone who was angling to stay past the agreed upon week of a bed, but he sure acted like he was trying to ingratiate himself. Why else would he have moved so quickly to replace the broken plates and mugs, the ripped comforter, let alone buy the better sheets, the soap and bring in candles and plants. Oh, and the nutmeg.
Thoughtfully, Ellison gazed over at Sandburg and smiled unconsciously. He was a good kid, easy to get along with, often amusing and he sure helped with the senses. Briefly, Jim wondered where the grad student would crash next. He'd lost all his furniture in the explosion and fire at the warehouse and most of his clothing had had to be pitched. It hadn't been that bad having him around, but Jim wasn't at all sure he wanted his privacy invaded on a permanent basis. Shrugging, he figured the kid had plenty of friends with whom he could crash until he got his act together. Now that Larry was gone, there was really no reason for him to stay here much longer. No doubt, he'd find another place in the next few days. There was no hurry, though, and with the help he'd been giving at the station, Sandburg hadn't had much time to make other arrangements. Another day or two wouldn't matter in the great scheme of things.
Just before he headed out, he decided he should wake Blair up because Jim wasn't at all sure when the kid's first class of the day was. "Hey, Chief," he called softly, nudging Sandburg's shoulder. "Up and at 'em, Sunshine."
"Umphh?" Blair mumbled and then yawned as he blinked and rubbed his eyes, looking very young and disheveled with his wild, tangled curls and crumpled clothes. "Oh, hey," he said more clearly once he was really awake, "how are you this morning? Rash gone? Breathing okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks," Jim replied easily. "If you want a ride to the University, you'll need to shower and change your clothes in a hurry. I have to get downtown."
"Oh, no, that's okay," Blair replied, waving off the offer as he stifled another yawn. "I'll grab the bus. Leave your coat and I'll drop it off at the cleaners on the way. I really don't want you touching it or wearing it in case the chemicals permeated the fabric."
"Yes, Mother," Jim responded with a chuckle, finding he rather liked being coddled, so long as it didn't become a habit. It was…diverting and unusual. Nice, actually. "I'll leave the key and you can bring it downtown later."
Blair took a quick shower and, wrinkling his nose, he donned his clothing from the day before. After staving off his hunger pangs with a bagel, he quickly cleaned up the kitchen, packed up his papers, books and laptop, fluffed the pillows on the couch and, grabbing Jim's overcoat, once again took his leave of the loft. After he dropped off the coat at the cleaners, he diverted to the neighbourhood thrift shop to pick up some jeans, a shirt and jacket…he couldn't very well go back downtown in the same stuff he'd been wearing the day before in case his clothing carried irritants that could affect Jim. He'd leave the possibly 'contaminated' clothing and coat in his office until he could get them cleaned.
And then he caught a bus to Rainier for his morning class and office hours. He told himself that it really didn't matter that he'd had to break his hundred dollar bill to pay for the clothes, but he felt unsettled. That bill was symbolic and was his last barricade against utter destitution. Grimly, he promised himself he wouldn't fritter away the rest of the money, not that there was all that much left-who knew what crisis might arise and he couldn't allow himself to spend any more on anything that wasn't absolutely essential…like gas to get around town and meet his obligations and maybe a couple of nights in the hostel downtown so that he'd get enough rest to be effective both at Rainier and in backing up Jim. Well, actually, a lot of nights in the hostel, he thought miserably. It would be months before he could afford anything more permanent.
"Hey, Jim!" Blair sang out with a wide grin as he hustled into the bullpen. "Guess what? Larry's been found, safe and sound!"
Quirking a brow as he looked up from the report he was studying, Jim replied sarcastically, "Well, it's good to know the streets are safe again and the dangerous beast has been locked up like he deserves. Where did they find him?"
"Ah, hey, Larry's not dangerous," Blair protested, not catching that Jim was just yanking his chain, not yet used to the older man's dry sense of humour. "He was just disturbed by all the violent stuff he saw on television, that's all." Looking a little chagrined, the grad student added, "They, uh, found him staring through the window of an electronics shop…he was watching the televisions that were on display."
Jim couldn't restrain the small grin as he shook his head. "Figures," he muttered. Shuffling through the papers on his desk, he pulled out a file. "Here's the stuff from yesterday for you to get started on. You can use Brown's desk-he's in the field this afternoon-to work on the reports that need to be completed."
Blair took the file and made himself comfortable at H's desk. The next couple of hours passed quietly, and for once, it seemed like they could quit at a reasonable hour. Sandburg was relieved at that since he still had a stack of papers to grade and he wanted to finish them that night. Accordingly, he'd decided that he might as well crash in his office and worry about checking out the hostel the next day.
As they headed across the parking garage at the end of the day, Jim asked, "So, what do you feel like for dinner, Chief?"
"Oh," Blair replied, startled as he paused on the way to his car. "I wasn't planning on dinner tonight, Jim. I've got a date with a bunch of essays that are longing to be fondled back in my office…I'm just going to head straight back to Rainier, if you don't mind."
"Uh, sure, no sweat," Jim replied with a shrug. He kept forgetting that the kid had what amounted to a full time job at the University and the hours Sandburg spent working with him cut into the work required at Rainier.
Blair waved casually as he turned away. He'd been a little surprised and disappointed that Jim hadn't said anything about the sheets or the other stuff he'd bought for the loft, but he wasn't going to draw attention to the gifts of gratitude himself. Philosophically, he set the small hurt aside and headed back to the job that paid his bills. It was going to be a long night.
And a hungry one.
He really couldn't afford to buy anything to eat until he got paid at the end of the week; he would need every dime he had left for the hostel tomorrow and for many more nights to come, not to mention gas for his car which was riding too close to empty…but payday was the day after tomorrow. Nobody starved by going a day or so without food. No big deal. The fact that he'd already gone more than a day, maybe even two, without eating more than breakfast at the loft, wasn't even a consideration.
The next morning after he'd showered and was fully awake, Jim was surprised to notice that something was missing from the apartment, and he was chagrined to realize that he'd grown accustomed during the past week or so to the sound of Blair's heartbeat as a reassuringly subtle grounding mechanism. Frowning a little, he glanced into the spare room, wondering if the kid had even made it home or if he'd fallen asleep in his office…it wasn't like Sandburg to be up at daybreak.
It was then that he noticed that the bed had been stripped, the blankets carefully folded on the futon. Startled, he moved into the room and saw that all of Sandburg's gear was gone. He'd moved out? When? And to where?
And why hadn't he said anything?
Jim felt a stab of annoyance that the kid would just move on without so much as a 'goodbye' and no forwarding address. What if he had to reach Sandburg because some crime had been committed after normal working hours and he needed Blair to help manage his senses at the scene? His jaw tight, Ellison figured the kid had a little explaining to do when he got to the office later that day.
More disconcertingly, he felt a stab of regret to realize Sandburg had moved on. Which, he firmly told himself, was just plain stupid. He didn't want a fulltime roommate. Did he?
And then he really wondered why Sandburg had bothered buying the plants, and the candles…not to mention the sheets and the other stuff that had been chosen with careful attention to his heightened sensitivities.
Well, the car might have been gassed up, but Blair felt like he was riding on empty by the time he arrived in the bullpen that afternoon. He was a little queasy from hunger, and a headache was beating a dull tattoo behind his eyes. But, payday was only another day away, and from past experience, he knew the nagging hunger would pass soon and he'd only have to worry about being a little light-headed until he could finally get himself something to eat. If it got too bad, he could forego a decent bed at the hostel for another night while he spent the money on dinner instead.
Jim looked up as Blair neared his desk, frustrated that he still hadn't decided how to take the fact that the kid had just up and walked out without saying a word. So, buying himself more time to think about it, he schooled his expression into frosty neutrality, barely nodding at Sandburg's greeting as he stood to grab his jacket. "We're heading out on another stakeout, Chief," he said abruptly, brushing past the younger man as he led the way back to the elevator.
Blair narrowed his eyes a little as he studied the detective's back on the way out to the hall. Jim seemed, what? Colder than usual? Irritated? Wondering why, figuring it had something to do with the evening's assignment, he asked, "What or whom are we staking out?"
"Styles gave them the slip last night, but we got a lead that he may be holing up at his girlfriend's place," Jim replied. "It's not enough to issue a search warrant of her house, but more than enough to watch it."
Blair thought about that as they entered the elevator. "And you figure you might be able to detect his presence there," he reflected with a casual wave toward one ear. Well, it explained Ellison's irritation, anyway, he thought…Jim wouldn't have been happy that Styles had eluded capture.
"Uh huh," Jim grunted as he punched the button.
Ellison found a parking spot across the street from the modest house in the somewhat seedy neighbourhood on the edge of the downtown core. It was a stucco bungalow with the standard living room and kitchen windows facing the street, their curtains drawn for privacy. There was a detached garage at the end of a cracked driveway that was lined on one side with decorative rocks and through the open entrance, they could see a blue Ford Escort had been backed inside. Though the place looked deserted, almost immediately, with the help of Blair's coaching, Jim was able to focus his hearing well enough to know that someone was moving around inside and seemed to be watching the television; but as there was no conversation, the individual appeared to be alone. Whether it was Styles or someone else, there was no way of telling until the girlfriend got home from her job as a cocktail waitress at a dive a few blocks away.
Resigned to the wait, they relaxed and Blair pulled a stack of tests that needed to be marked out of his backpack. Jim sat silently for about fifteen minutes, one elbow propped on the window frame, his hand covering his mouth, unconsciously holding his peace-until he finally decided he had a right to know where Sandburg was staying, and muttered, "So, you found another place to stay…"
Distracted, his attention pulled from the paper he'd been reading, Blair blinked and then nodded. "Uh huh," he replied absently and then focused again on the test responses.
Well, that had certainly been an illuminating and comprehensive response, Ellison thought with impatient sarcasm. "I was a little surprised to find the spare room empty this morning," he observed. "You didn't say anything about moving on."
Shrugging, Sandburg set the paper down on his knees as he looked up and replied, "Surprised? Why? I was only supposed to be there for a week, and then only because I needed someplace to keep Larry. Once he'd, well, taken off, there wasn't any reason for me to keep imposing on you. Besides, the week was up a couple of days ago, and I figured your observations about 'courtship behaviour' were a subtle hint that it was time for me to leave you in peace."
Nodding, Ellison chewed on his lip. Well, that made sense. They'd made a deal for a week and the deadline had passed. "I guess I was surprised because you'd moved in some plants and candles and, well, you bought new sheets for my bed…"
Sandburg's eyes widened in understanding as he replied, "You thought I was making myself at home and maybe bribing you to let me stay?" When Jim just shrugged, Blair continued in a rush, "No, that wasn't it at all. I mean, you were really great to take me in, let alone Larry-and then he wrecked your place, twice! Oh, man, I felt really bad about that and I just wanted to show my gratitude, that's all. 'Cause I am really grateful. You didn't have to let me stay there and I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't..."
Waving off the flow of words with a sigh, Jim felt a bit embarrassed for having misjudged the kid yet again, and was only too aware that Sandburg probably couldn't afford to be giving him stuff when the grad student had virtually nothing left to his name. So Blair hadn't been trying to ingratiate himself at all-he'd only and sincerely been concerned about showing his appreciation of being granted a place to sleep in a way that was touchingly considerate. Not used to anyone doing him any favours, Jim replied uncertainly, "Oh, well, okay, but you didn't have to..."
"I know," Blair responded with a small smile. "But I just really wanted to say, 'thanks', you know?" When Jim nodded wordlessly, Sandburg carried on, "Oh, and I also got you some new laundry soap and cleaning supplies-scentless, natural products. That other stuff you were using really isn't good for your skin…"
Turning his head to gaze mutely at the younger man, Ellison was really at a loss for words. He'd noticed the sheets had not only been smoother against his sensitive skin, but softer, gentler somehow, though he hadn't realized why. He couldn't get over how Sandburg had considered the smallest details of his environment in selecting products to make his personal space more endurable, even comfortable. Jim blinked and looked away. "Okay," he murmured finally. "I, ah, thanks…."
"No problem, man," Blair replied as he turned back to his work, pleased that Jim seemed happy enough with his small gifts and feeling better for knowing now that Ellison hadn't said anything the day before because Jim evidently hadn't realized that he'd moved out. Grinning a little to himself, he reflected that Ellison sure was suspicious of the least little thing…imagine thinking that he'd been trying to buy the older man's tolerance if not out-right friendship? Man, this guy sure didn't take pleasant gestures for granted.
The grin faded as Sandburg reflected then that his last thought left him feeling a little sad. Jim was a great guy, once you got past the frosty exterior, and Blair couldn't help wishing that the man had more experience in accepting modest tokens of friendship and appreciation.
It was dark by the time Shanda Sommers, a bottle-blond with a mane of wild hair, strutted down the street in a tight outfit that left nothing to the imagination, and practically shimmied up the drive to the walk to the front door, brazenly flaunting her considerable assets and oozing sensuality. Both observers thought wryly that they could see what Styles saw in her. Within moments of her entry into the house, Jim had confirmed that it was Styles who was holed up inside. Unconsciously checking to confirm that the arrest warrant was still in his pocket, Ellison opened the truck's door as he said, "You wait here and call for back up, Junior. I'm going to take him into custody."
"Shouldn't you wait for the back up to arrive?" Blair challenged, thinking another few minutes of waiting wouldn't matter.
"Nah, this guy is a crook but he doesn't have a history of violence," Ellison replied. "He'll come quietly enough once he knows the game is up."
Blair still thought it might be better to wait for the back up, but he did as he was asked, dividing his attention between Jim, who was crossing the street to stride up the driveway, and the house. The warehouse explosion hadn't looked like arson, so Styles wasn't wanted for the murder of the watchman, but still…he could be dangerous. Blair had just finished with dispatch when he saw the living room curtains flutter. Wondering if Styles had spotted Jim, he eased himself out of the truck onto the sidewalk, not sure of what to do or if Jim had realized that he might have been seen. Crouching and keeping to the shadows as much as he could, he scampered across the street and moved closer to the house.
Meanwhile, Ellison had reached the front door and rung the bell. Impatient with not getting a response, he rapped hard on the door. Finally, Shanda called out sharply, "Hold your horses, I'm coming!"
And at the same time, Blair spotted movement between the side of the house and the garage. Squinting, he barely caught the shadow of a man flitting from behind the house toward the garage and yelled out, "Jim, the garage…"
Ellison leapt off the steps to the walkway as he drew his weapon. Blair saw Styles race around the car, intent upon making his escape, as with long strides, Jim loped back to the middle of the driveway. Opening up his vision to make out Styles in the darkness and leveling his revolver at the man in the car, he shouted, "Police! Jake Styles, you're under arrest!"
The sudden flare of the headlights caught the Sentinel off-guard, momentarily blinding him, stunning him with the shock and pain of the visual assault as the car's engine roared into life. Aghast, Blair saw that Jim wasn't moving out of the way and evidently couldn't see what was going on well enough to stop Styles from running him down.
Without thought, Sandburg launched himself forward, barreling into Jim to knock him out of the way of the car that burst out of the garage and down the driveway.
The car whipped past even as they hit the ground, barely missing them as they sprawled across the edge of the drive. Jim rolled to quickly regain his feet and brought his weapon up, blinking and squinting to focus his vision as he snapped off a shot at the vehicle that had careened into the street. The bullet burst the rear left tire, sending the car skidding, barely missing his truck as it slid sideways into a telephone pole.
Blair had gone with the roll Ellison had initiated to get out of Jim's way, but had whacked his head on one of the rocks that lined the driveway, hard enough to see more and brighter stars than were visible in the cloud-strewn night sky. He'd heard the gunshot and the screeching, skidding tires as well as the subsequent crash, but couldn't seem to get up. Stunned, he blinked as he tried to focus his vision, and took deep breaths to calm down and settle the sudden spike of nausea in his gut.
"Thanks, Chief," Jim called over his shoulder, unaware that his partner had been hurt, as he raced toward the smashed vehicle, intent upon ensuring that Styles didn't get away yet again. It was only after he'd hauled the subdued and shaken man out of the car and had cuffed him that Ellison looked up and noticed his partner was still lying sprawled on the driveway. "Sandburg!" he called out in alarm as he roughly dragged Styles back across the street and shoved him down onto the lawn. "Move and I swear I'll shoot you," he growled in warning as he turned to kneel beside Blair.
"Hey, Chief, you okay?" Ellison demanded, worry making his voice brusque as he reached out to touch the kid's shoulder. Blair's heartbeat was racing, but he was clearly awake and seemed to be breathing okay.
"Yeah," Blair muttered, pain in his voice. "I just hit my head…I'm fine."
Ellison reached out to delicately probe Sandburg's skull and winced at the size of the bump that was already beginning to rise. "That's got to hurt," he muttered, his lips thin with worry, wondering if Blair had suffered a concussion.
"You think?" Sandburg blurted as he flinched away from the pain of Jim's touch. Taking another deep breath, he grimaced against the headache that now raged and swallowed back the nausea that was seriously threatening to humiliate him. Determined to not be a burden or a worry, he pushed himself up to sit but dizziness assailed him and he was very grateful for Jim's steadying strong arm around his shoulders.
"Just take it easy, Chief," Jim cautioned, glad to hear sirens approaching. As soon as the uniforms arrived, he was going to get Sandburg to the hospital to be checked out.
In minutes, the uniformed officers had taken Styles and his girlfriend into custody and Jim had helped Blair to stand. When the younger man swayed dangerously, barely staying on his feet, Ellison looped an arm around his shoulders and took a firm grip on one arm to steady him and help him to the truck. "Oh, man," Blair muttered, one arm pressed against his stomach while his other hand drifted up to cradle his aching head. "I feel like I'm going to be sick…"
"Just keep taking slow deep breaths," Ellison counseled, his brow creased in concern as he eased Sandburg into the SUV. "I'm taking you to Cascade General to get you checked out."
Blair stiffened at that idea, protesting, "No, no…I'm sure I'll be okay…" The last thing he needed was an invoice for the hundred and fifty dollar deductible on his health insurance. But his pallor and the way he sagged against the seat, his eyes pressed tightly shut as he swallowed against the bile in the back of his throat, weren't reassuring signals to an increasingly anxious Sentinel.
"Can it, Junior," Ellison growled as he secured Sandburg's seatbelt. "Just concentrate on trying not to get sick in my truck, okay?"
Blair snorted, even in his discomfort recognizing the gruff humour for the worry it was and he smiled wanly. "Right," he murmured.
Once Jim had the truck moving, he cut a grim look at Blair. "You were supposed to stay in the truck," he accused. "You're an observer, not a cop…you're not supposed to put yourself at risk."
"You're welcome," Sandburg muttered with a brief, knowing, sideways look and another small grin.
"Yeah, well, just don't do something risky like that again," Jim grated. "Pushing me out of the way of moving vehicles is getting to be too much of a habit with you."
Snickering, and then regretting it as pain shot through his head, Blair replied, "Well, here's the deal. As soon as you stop freezing in the middle of the road…"
"I wasn't in the middle of the road," Ellison growled, keeping the kid talking, making sure he stayed conscious and alert.
"Same difference," Sandburg pointed out, one hand gingerly massaging the back of his head around the bump.
Sighing, Ellison capitulated. "I'd opened up my vision to see him better in the dark and the headlights blinded me…I, well, pain just exploded in my head and I couldn't think for a second…"
"Yeah, I figured that," Sandburg murmured quietly, frowning in thought. "It wasn't your fault…maybe we need to test some strategies for rapid recovery when light or sound bursts overwhelm your wide open senses."
"Tests?" Jim echoed unhappily having already come to loathe the myriad ideas Sandburg came up with to explore his sensory capacity. "Next time, just let the damn car or truck hit me, okay?"
Blair couldn't help chuckling at the hunted tone in Jim's voice. "Yeah, right," he drawled. "I'll try to remember that next time." Deciding that he was feeling marginally better if still a bit dizzy and light-headed, he tried again to dissuade Jim from taking him to the hospital. "Uh, look, I'm okay, Jim. Why don't we just head back to the station?"
"No way, kid," Jim replied tightly with a quick, cutting look. Sandburg was as pale as alabaster and his heart was still pounding a little too fast for the Sentinel's liking. Playing a hunch about the reason for Sandburg's reluctance to get checked out, he added, "Relax-you were hurt while aiding in an official investigation. You can expense the hospital costs."
"I can?" Blair asked with evident relief. "Uh, well, okay, then."
Jim's lips tightened. Just as he'd thought, the kid was strapped for cash. Dammit, then why had he spent what little he had on stuff for a guy who could well afford to buy his own sheets and laundry detergent? Ellison hadn't ever experienced such untoward and unexpected generosity and he wasn't sure what to make of it. In his life, virtually everyone he'd ever known had always put themselves first, with the possible exception of Carolyn, but even when they were married she wouldn't have given him what pretty much amounted to her last cent. This kid was really something else.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Blair was shaky and increasingly dizzy, barely able to stand let alone walk without support. Jim's gut clenched with anxious concern as he helped the younger man inside and hollered for assistance.
"Could you keep it down a little," Sandburg protested with a flinch. "It's not like I'm dying here…"
Ignoring him, Ellison waved to a handy orderly who hustled to bring a wheelchair. "Head injury," Jim snapped, flashing his badge. "He's my partner, Blair Sandburg. I'll provide his information to the desk while you take him to a doctor." Turning to Blair, he held out his hand. "Give me your insurance card, Chief."
Blair pulled his wallet out of his jacket pocket and gave the whole thing to Jim as the orderly began to push him back to one of the treatment rooms. Head injuries could be tricky and got priority over just about anything except very severe trauma like hemorrhaging accident victims and heart attacks, so the medical attendant didn't hesitate to give the new patient priority over others in the waiting room.
When Jim riffled through the wallet to find the insurance information, he noticed there was about twenty dollars in bills and was relieved to find that Sandburg wasn't absolutely flat broke. As soon as he'd finished with the receptionist, he headed toward the treatment rooms but a vigilant nurse sent him packing back to the waiting lounge where he paced impatiently. Reaching out with his hearing, he learned that Sandburg was being sent for a skull x-ray as well as having blood taken for the standard tests. Sighing, he resigned himself to settling into one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs. It could be a long wait.
Though he was wary of zoning, Jim couldn't resist reaching out with his hearing every couple of minutes to check on Blair's condition-he wasn't reassured by the kid's propensity to slip into sleep and his grogginess whenever one of the nurses woke him to check his level of coherence. Jaw rigid, he unconsciously tapped an impatient tattoo on the arm of his chair, standing every few minutes to pace back and forth in a futile attempt to burn off his worry.
Finally, after almost an hour, he picked up the sounds of the doctor's conversation with Sandburg…
"Mr. Sandburg, your test results are a little confusing…"
"Oh, what does that mean?" Blair replied warily, stifling a yawn.
"Well, there's no skull fracture or evidence of concussion," the physician explained, and Jim relaxed considerably, "but your electrolytes are out of balance, you are seriously hypoglycemic, and you indicate a slight degree of photophobia, no doubt from your severe headache and nausea which are also contributing to your continued dizziness…"
Ellison tensed up again. What the hell? he thought, coming to the same conclusion that the doctor evidently had, as he asked Sandburg, "When did you last eat?"
There was a pause, and then the kid replied, sounding embarrassed, "Well, it's been a couple of days I guess. I, uh, had some unexpected expenses and payday isn't until tomorrow…"
"Unexpected expenses?" the physician echoed disapprovingly. "Mr. Sandburg, you're old enough to know that you have to eat or you could suffer severe consequences…"
"It was only for a couple of days," Blair protested, stung by the patronizing attitude. "It's not like I'm on a hunger strike or something. I'm hardly starving to death."
"No, perhaps not, but you're lucky you haven't passed out or suffered more serious complications…"
"Look, I'll get something to eat as soon as I get out of here," Sandburg cut in, not interested in a lecture. "If my head is okay, can I just go?"
Sighing, the physician acquiesced. "All right…but make sure you have something, some soup or eggs and toast, as well as at least one glass of juice when you get home. I'll go sign off your chart and tell your partner to get some food into you…"
"Just hold it, a minute!" Blair snapped. "As you so correctly pointed out, I'm not a child and Detective Ellison is not my keeper. You have no right to discuss my health with him."
"As you wish," the doctor agreed, clearly not happy.
Jim was already moving down the hallway toward the treatment room as the doctor came out. Shaking his head, recognizing Jim from two nights before, the physician muttered, "You two are certainly managing to keep us busy. You can take him home, but I want someone checking him every couple of hours or so for the rest of the night to ensure that there are no delayed concussive effects. He's got a good sized lump on his head."
"I'll make sure he's okay," Jim affirmed with a determined tone as he brushed by and pushed the door open. Blair was standing by the examining table, one hand on it to hold himself steady against the wooziness, his eyes closed as he breathed deeply and tried to get his balance. "Whoa, take it easy!" Jim exclaimed as he hastened to Blair's side and grabbed his arm. "You look like you're about to faint."
"I'm fine," Sandburg asserted wearily. "I'll just grab a cab…" He fully intended to take a bus, not a cab, but he knew Jim wouldn't go for that idea.
"Oh, no," Jim replied. "I brought you in, and I'll take you home. And what's this crap about not eating?" he demanded as he handed Blair his wallet.
Startled, Sandburg looked up at him. "You were listening? Dammit, Jim…I'm entitled to a little privacy, you know."
"Don't change the subject, Chief," Jim replied as he steadied Blair and helped him from the room. "You forget to eat, or what?" Despite Blair's explanation to the doctor about 'unexpected expenses', which had made Jim uncomfortable, the detective knew Sandburg had the money on him to afford food.
"Something like that," Blair replied, not in the mood to discuss his dietary choices or the fact that he couldn't afford both a decent bed and food until he got paid the next day. Once again, he stated firmly, "I'm just going to take a cab, Jim. It's late and you don't need to play chauffeur, all right?"
"No, not all right," Ellison snapped as they left the building and he tugged Blair toward the truck. "Give me the address where you're staying and I'll take you there. And, unless you vow to me that there is food in the place, we're stopping on the way to get you something to eat."
Sandburg hesitated, not really wanting to admit that he was essentially homeless at the moment. His problems were not Jim's responsibility. But, cutting a look up at the older man, he could see that Jim wasn't going to let it go. Sighing, he looked down and away as he finally admitted, "Look, I haven't exactly found a place yet, okay? I'm crashing in my office. There's a couch there and it's perfectly comfortable. You don't need to…"
"You left before you had a decent place to stay?" Jim exclaimed, shocked. "Why the hell did you do that?"
Suddenly very weary, feeling ill, Blair gestured helplessly with one hand as he replied dispiritedly, "Look, you agreed to a week and my time was up, man. You are not responsible for my care and well being, okay? I've been responsible for myself for a lot of years now and I'm fine, I'll be fine. Payday is tomorrow and since it's too late to head to the youth hostel, you can just drop me downtown. I'll pick up my car and get something to eat on the way back to my office." Sighing, he figured the upside was that since he wouldn't be needing his last twenty bucks to pay for a bed for the night, he could finally allow himself to buy a decent meal.
"Get in the truck," Jim ordered abruptly as he moved around to the driver's side. Hostel? The kid didn't have any options other than a hostel or his office? For someone who was more than likely a genius from what Ellison had seen of him in the last few weeks, Blair could be surprisingly dense. If he thought Jim was going to simply dump him off downtown in the middle of the night, when he was evidently hardly able to stand let alone capable of being left on his own to drive off into the darkness, or abandon him to sleep on an old and battered couch with no one to wake him regularly to ensure he was alright, Sandburg was due for a surprise.
Wordlessly, Jim started up the engine and steered the truck out onto the street, heading back to the loft.
"Jim, the police station is the other way," Blair protested.
"I'm taking you home," Ellison replied, his voice tight.
"This is not open for discussion, Sandburg," Jim growled. "So shut up and enjoy the ride."
Too tired to argue any further, Blair sagged back against the seat and closed his eyes. Truthfully, the futon in the spare room was a whole lot more appealing than the couch in his office. It was just one more night, and then he'd sort things out tomorrow.
In the silence, Jim flicked a glance at the suddenly quiet grad student and shook his head again at the kid's pallor and evident weary weakness. Ellison didn't know quite what to think about Sandburg. Blair was almost perpetually cheerful and rarely stopped talking unless he was focused on his endless grading of papers or preparing of lectures and even then he mumbled to himself. He'd not given any indication whatsoever that he'd been going hungry or had no place to crash…and he'd spent money he quite evidently badly needed on buying stuff to make Ellison's life more bearable. On top of that, the kid had risked his life earlier that evening, and not for the first time, to protect Jim. Swallowing, Ellison concluded that the young man was doing a pretty good job of taking care of him, of helping him with his senses and backing him up at work despite Blair's other obligations…but Jim couldn't help but begin to wonder who looked out for Sandburg. Despite his casual demeanor, the kid quite evidently was pretty fiercely independent and didn't like to mooch off other people. How long had he planned to camp out in his office until he could afford another place of his own? How many times did he forego eating because he couldn't afford to buy food? Didn't he have family somewhere who could check up and make sure he was okay? What did he mean that he'd been taking care of himself for a long time now?
Once again, Jim found himself reflecting that he'd been taken in by Sandburg's superficial appearance and easy-going manner. What did he really know about the younger man? Practically nothing, that's what. For all that Blair chattered on about sentinel behaviours and esoteric stuff about pygmies or whatever, he didn't have much to say about himself. Well, Ellison would be damned if he'd accept Sandburg's help while knowing the kid was essentially homeless and going hungry, and not do something to help him out.
When they got back to the loft, Jim helped Blair to a chair at the table, poured him a glass of juice and set about scrambling some eggs while the bread toasted. Sandburg sipped at the juice, but still wasn't talking and, keeping his head down, he wasn't making any eye contact either. Slightly flushed, he looked embarrassed, if not outright humiliated.
Setting the plate of food and some cutlery in front of the grad student, Jim left him to eat while he went to make up the bed in the spare room. The two of them needed to have a serious conversation, but not that night. The kid was bagged and needed to crash as soon as he'd eaten. Time enough in the morning to clear up a few things.
In accordance with the doctor's instructions, Jim had roused Blair every couple of hours during the night, so neither of them felt particularly well rested when Ellison woke Sandburg the next morning. Realizing that Blair didn't have any clothing in the loft, and that his shirt was grubby from rolling around on the ground the night before, Jim brought down one of his own sweatshirts the next morning. "Here," he offered. "You can put this on after you've had your shower, and you can use my razor to shave. I'll take you downtown with me so that you can pick up your car."
"Thanks," Sandburg murmured, feeling like an indigent who was dependent upon charity and not liking it as he moved past Jim to the bathroom.
When Blair emerged, dressed, his damp hair curling around his face and collar, he found breakfast prepared and waiting for him. Summoning up a grateful smile, he thanked Ellison as he sat down to eat.
"Chief," Jim began, pushing his spare key across the table toward the younger man, "I want you to move back in."
"Jim, you don't have to…" Blair began but Ellison held up a hand to stop the flow of resisting words and assertions of independence.
Cutting in, Jim demanded, "How long before you think you can realistically save enough to afford your own place, especially given that you haven't got a stick of furniture to your name?"
Swallowing, Blair shrugged. "A couple of months, maybe a little longer," he admitted truthfully, if reluctantly.
"And you were going to sleep in your office or at some hostel for all of that time?" Jim clarified, his voice carefully neutral. Ellison didn't want to even think about what kind of accommodations Sandburg would eventually find and deem suitable after having seen the last place the kid had been living in.
"Wouldn't be the first time," Sandburg replied, a trace of stubbornness in his voice.
"Right, well, not this time, Junior," Jim retorted. "Look, I need you functioning at one hundred percent if you're going to back me up. You're already pushing the boundaries, what with trying to keep up with your work at the University as well as help me out with my senses. I know that, in some ways, being with me counts as your work, too, because you're gathering information for your dissertation, but I'm not prepared to keep accepting your help while you're scrambling to barely survive in very basic terms."
"Jim, I appreciate your concern, I really do," Blair replied diffidently. "But I can't afford to pay you rent and at the same time save up enough to get my own place. I just don't have that kind of cash flow right now. You don't need to worry about me. I told you, I'll be fine."
"'Fine' is a relative term, Einstein, and we both know it," Jim challenged back. Blowing out a breath, he let go of his own misgivings about having a full time roommate for the foreseeable future. "Look, we'll work out a reasonable rent for you to stay here. And, it makes sense, doesn't it, for you to be here while you're helping me with my senses…makes sense for both of us? I've got the room…"
"Jim, you like a quiet, predictable, peaceful environment…and man, that does not describe me. I'll drive you nuts if I'm around all the time!" Sandburg objected, though the offer, and the concern for him that it revealed, made his chest tight when he looked at the key waiting so invitingly for him to pick it up-and thought about all that that key represented. Not only had it been a long, long time since anyone had worried about where he slept or how regularly he ate, but that key symbolized trust and a kind of permanency. He respected Jim a great deal, and was coming to think of the man as a good friend. Blair didn't want to blow it by becoming an encumbrance or a nuisance in the man's life.
Jim thought about the soft, smooth sheets on his bed, the hypoallergenic gentle soap and cleaning supplies, and took a breath, enjoying the light mingling of the vanilla and nutmeg fragrances in the loft as he looked past Blair's shoulder at the plants by the balcony doors. And he thought about how this guy, this virtual stranger, had already saved his life, more than once-not even counting how Sandburg had helped him begin to understand and control his unwieldy senses and had reassured him that he wasn't going insane.
Shifting his gaze back to Blair's face, taking in the wide-eyed look of concern for his well being, his comfort in his own home even though the kid really had no other place to be, and feeling a sudden surge of protectiveness for this truly brilliant and generous, young human being, Jim chewed his lip as he nodded. Despite his conviction that it was only right, even necessary, that the kid move in for an undetermined period of time, maybe a long time, Sandburg was right-they were very different people and Jim knew himself well enough to know he preferred a degree of order and serenity that would be severely challenged by Blair's presence in the loft.
"Well," he said finally, "we'll have to set some ground rules. But, if you're willing to meet me halfway, Chief, I think we could make it work."
Ellison saw a sudden surge of warmth and gratitude in the grad student's eyes, and Blair blinked rapidly as he suddenly ducked his head, his breathing hitching a bit as he swallowed convulsively, as if something had gotten caught in his throat. Jim felt a funny ache in his own chest as he realized how much his offer of a home meant to the kid, and for the first time, he appreciated that Blair wanted to be there-really wanted them to be roommates and friends as well as partners of convenience.
Not many people in Jim's life had ever wanted to spend that much time in his company-he was surprised to find how good it made him feel that this unusual and very bohemian grad student was truly grateful for his offer of a place to live and the friendship that offer symbolized. "Well?" he prompted. "What do you think?"
Hearing the uncertainty in Ellison's voice, touched that the older man really seemed to want him around, Blair nodded finally and looked up with a soft smile. "I'd like to stay," he replied honestly. But then his eyes sparkled with mischief as he warned, "But, you gotta know, I'm not real good with rules, man."
"Is that so?" Jim replied, unable to completely restrain the small smile playing about his own lips. "We'll see about that, Junior. For a start, let's just be clear that there's no food or drink allowed anywhere but the kitchen, no feet on the furniture, no noise after ten pm…and that includes flushing the toilet."
Blair gave him a quizzical look and then gazed around the loft. "I think I can handle that," he agreed as his gaze came back to Jim's.
"You'd better," Ellison growled as he stood and carried their dirty dishes to the sink, but Blair had seen the light of laughter in the older man's eyes and wasn't fooled by the gruffness. Jim really wanted him to stay, as amazing as that seemed. Standing as well, and moving to pick up the dishtowel from the counter, he began drying the dishes as Jim washed them.
And though neither man admitted it, both felt happier and more at peace than either had felt in a very long time. The loft, long a 'dwelling place' for one, if only a place of brief refuge for the other, had finally begun to feel like a home-to both of them.
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