Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

'Time Out' For The Holidays!

by Arianna

2002 Challenge Story to use the following items/elements: a checkered apron, pecan pie, Toaster Strudel (TM), a trip to see The Two Towers, eggnog -- the *special* kind, Blair and/or Jim and/or any member of Major Crimes singing (or trying to sing) "We Are The Champions" by Queen, Christmas tree decorated with wooden ornaments, a squirrel.

Note: This story takes place the first winter that Blair lived at the loft.

********************

Not having time even for the usual bowl of cereal that morning, Ellison popped the breakfast substitute into the toaster as he hastily drank a few swallows of coffee.

"Toaster Strudel?" Blair protested, shaking his head. "Man, that stuff is NOT good for you…it'll give you a sugar high, unnecessary carbs and absolutely no nourishment."

Jim cocked a patient brow as he murmured, "There's fruit in them, Chief. Besides, they're quick and filling."

Rolling his eyes as he briefly turned on the blender for his algae shake, making his roommate wince at the loud, grinding noise, Blair simply sighed. What could he say to a man who thought Wonderburgers were on the national list of essential food groups?

The toaster popped and Ellison, already wearing his coat, grabbed the pastries, blowing on them to cool them, as he turned to head out of the loft. "Will you be down at the station later, Sandburg?"

"Yeah, Jim," Blair replied, "as soon as I finish off the grading for the end of term reports for my fourth year students. I should make it by early afternoon. Okay?"

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Ellison replied, and then he was gone.

Blair leaned against the kitchen counter while he downed his shake, his gaze absently roaming the living room. It was ten days until Christmas, and they hadn't even set up the tree yet. Between his end of term schedule, and the usual holiday craziness on the streets, both he and Jim had been running flat out for weeks. Man, it would be so good to get a 'time out'! he thought as he turned to rinse out his glass and the blender. Moments later, he, too, had donned his coat, grabbed his pack and headed out.

********************

The time of late fall and early winter is so often the busiest time of year, and this year was no exception. Blair was racing from one obligation to the next, giving last of term lectures, grading exam papers and essays, getting the grades in, meeting individually with students…and in his 'spare time', working with Ellison at the police station or going out on stakeouts or investigations. Somewhere, in the midst of running from one place to another, he tried to squeeze in the shopping he wanted to do, which, given the scarcity of his funds meant that he couldn't just buy what he wanted or the first thing he might see that seemed 'right'."Sleep seemed a non-essential luxury, to be grabbed in odd moments, for short periods, 'power naps' to refuel and revitalize before he dashed off to the next essential activity. Eating also became a little haphazard, with nourishment being grabbed on the way from one place to another, or forgotten about when time didn't permit, or financial resources didn't quite stretch for anything that might actually be recognizable as a real meal.

As the weeks and days had counted down toward the Christmas break, Sandburg found himself teetering on the edge of exhaustion, holding on, and only then just barely, by the skin of his teeth.

Ellison was equally hard pressed. The holidays, meant to be joyful, often only brought stress and confrontation. Tempers ran high, amongst families, and on the streets, with people feeling rushed, pushed by the expectation to be 'happy' when they felt isolated, lonely or just too tired to cope. The staff in Major Crimes found themselves being called on to 'fill in', 'help out', in work that would not normally be their own, just because other units were swamped with more than they could handle. Robberies to be investigated, as some individuals decided the solution to not having the cash to buy was to steal what they wanted. Accidents, caused by the miserable road conditions of slushy rain, snow, sleet, early dusk and an increasingly short-tempered and time-pressed citizenry needed intervention and investigation. Suicides, successful and attempted, also needed to be addressed, the woeful truth being that this supposedly happiest of times was also the season of the highest rate of self-destruction.

The constant barrage of stimulation, the lack of sufficient downtime, the need as well to find time for personal pursuits, like Christmas shopping, the inevitable regrets of the memories of past Christmases, were wearing the Sentinel down, making Jim even more short-tempered and reactive than was usual…and he wasn't a man known at the best of times for his patience or forbearance.

Though he tried to understand Sandburg's schedule, and truly appreciated the time his partner took to be with him despite the pressures of his own job as a teaching fellow, Ellison still found the absent-minded, always more than half-distracted lately, manner of his friend and roommate frustrating. When Blair spent stakeout time grading papers or marking essays, reading out particularly dismaying or insightful examples on the pages before him, Jim became testier, and increasingly uninterested in stuff that was only really a distraction to the work at hand.

Blair, in return, became more withdrawn and silent, holding his commentary to himself, but still having to get the academic work done, however much it clearly annoyed his partner.

One evening, while tracing stolen goods, they were checking out pawnshops, visiting one after another, so that Sandburg didn't even have the usual time in the truck to 'catch up' on the work for Rainier. The grad student found the endless round of interviews less than stimulating as his conscience clamoured that he wasn't fulfilling his fellowship responsibilities, while debating with itself his equally important responsibilities to support Jim. It left him distracted and his concentration wandered further to the point late that evening when his attention was caught by a small collection of old, wooden, Christmas tree ornaments. The little treasures were quite evidently hand-made with loving care, the work so detailed that each ornament was also a complete little toy, like homemade tinker toys. There was an antique Ford, an old, steam-type locomotive with several cars for passengers, stock, freight and a caboose, a hay wagon, a tractor, an old anvil with the heavy hammer hooked to its side, but detachable, other tools, like a rake and a shovel. So engrossed did he become in the display that he'd actually picked up the small wagon, and was absent-mindedly spinning the tiny wheels, his thoughts far away.

"Chief, do you mind…we're not on a shopping expedition here," Ellison's voice cut into his thoughts, sharp and irritated.

Startled, Blair jumped and hastily put the old ornament down, but even as he apologized, his gaze was still locked on the small collection. "Sorry, Jim," he replied wearily. "It's just that they remind me…"

But his voice drifted away, and Ellison had no time to listen or wonder. "No time for a trip down memory lane, Junior…let's go," he snapped, heading toward the door and the next shop on their investigative interview list.

Shrugging, with a small sigh, Sandburg followed his partner back into the cold, miserable night.

********************

Late one afternoon, five days now before Christmas, Sandburg stifled a yawn even as he shouldered open the door to the loft. His arms were full of grocery bags, and his backpack was slung over his shoulder, his hair damp and wild with tangled curls from the icy fog outside. Kicking off his shoes, he dragged himself to the kitchen counter to finally drop the heavy bags, then pulled off his pack, tossing it against the wall, somewhere in the vicinity of the front door. He shrugged off his coat and hung it from one of the hooks and, with a quick look at the clock, moved back to the kitchen to hastily unpack and put away the supplies. He then made two quick trips downstairs to the basement storage locker to haul out the Christmas tree and the decorations he had discovered Jim had hidden down there. The guys were all coming by later to play a bit of poker, even though they didn't really have the time. But they badly needed the break, some bit of normalcy and relaxed, friendly fun to keep their sanity. Blair thought that in addition to the regular poker night, it might be nice to have some trappings, at least, of the season, and he had decided to add eggnog, along with a small bottle of the stuff to make it 'special', to the regular list of supplies, like beer and chips. He also planned to quickly whip up a pecan pie, having heard the other night, when they'd grabbed a quick meal at a diner, that it was one of Jim's favourite indulgences during the holidays.

Back upstairs, a model of perpetual motion, he dumped the boxes on the floor, then moved to the CD to quickly load up seasonal music for the evening, and then wrapped a checkered apron around his clothing to protect himself from the dusting of flour he seemed to inevitably pick up when baking, and quickly whipped up the pie. He really didn't have time to shower and change, not if he was going to get everything else done before he headed out for a one hour meeting with a student needing last minute help and guidance before the gathering this evening.

Popping the pie into the pre-heated oven, he then turned back to the living room to hastily set up the tree, wishing they'd had time to go out and get a real one, but recognizing that there were some things that time just wouldn't permit, not this year at any rate. Sitting down for a minute to sort decorations from the box, he suddenly felt a wave of absolute weariness wash over him. Recognizing that sitting down in his exhausted state hadn't likely been the best idea, he was still unable to resist leaning back against the sofa to rest his eyes, just for a minute…only to awake, his heart pounding, to the shattering sound of the smoke alarm, and coughing from the heavy fumes and smoke filling the loft.

"Dammit!" he cursed with feeling as he leapt up from the sofa, tripping over the box of ornaments and scattering all manner of decorations, paper, trimming and strings of lights over the carpet. He hastily opened the balcony door to air the place and whipped around to turn off the oven and pull out the charred remains of the pecan pie, dumping the pan into the sink with a feeling of disappointed despair, his eyes watering from the thickness of the smoke, groaning with the realization that the place wreaked of burned sugar. Just what a hyper-sensitive Sentinel did NOT need. Even as he turned dejectedly from the sink, he heard an odd rustling and scurrying that drew his attention back to the living room…and was astonished to see a squirrel messing about with the paper wrappings of the ornaments, hunting for food.

"Hey!" he called out, coughing and wiping his stinging eyes. "what are you doing in here! Shoo, go on, back outside with you!"

Unfortunately, the squirrel spoke a different language, and noticing a large, loud, two-legged animal coming toward it while talking loudly, misunderstood entirely and reacted with a certain degree of alarm that quickly degenerated into outright panic. The smoky air, despite the overlay of enticingly sweet scents however charred, didn't help. Squirrels aren't that smart, especially when afraid and tend to run before taking stock of the environment or remembering how they got where they are in the first place. The stricken creature jumped straight up and back a good foot, then whirled to race with heart-pounding terror up and over the furniture, leaping to the floor on the opposite side of the sofa from the path Blair was taking, which was to say, away from the open door and freedom. The little critter then jumped up on the counter, tracked through the flour still scattered there, and made a mad dash up the stairs to Jim's room, where it tore madly about looking for escape, leaping on and off the bed, the dresser, scattering belongings, small pictures and tracking tiny white footprints everywhere.

Blair, conscious of trying not to terrorize the little beast further, moved slowly up the stairs, cringing at the mess and chaos such a small creature could create in such a short period of time. Nevertheless, he had to try to herd it back downstairs and out the door before it did any real damage or, god forbid, became incontinent with fear and really messed the place up.

The squirrel had just turned and leapt from the upper storey back down to the kitchen counter, landing on a spoon, and tumbling into a bowl which then tipped, rolled and crashed onto the floor, making the little rodent queak with alarm, as it flew in a mad rushing leap back to land on the nearest sofa, tearing along it, then with little claws digging in, scrambling back down to seek shelter in the disarray of Christmas decorations.

Blair was following the more traditional route, taking the stairs back down, when the door crashed open and Jim rushed in, followed by the other guys from Major Crimes.

The alarming odour of smoke, along with Sandburg's racing heartbeat, had alerted the Sentinel that all was not well long before he almost kicked open the door to his apartment. The lingering haze of smoke, the cold air billowing in from outside, the tracks of flour over everything, the broken bowl along with the mess of the scattered decorations and the glimpsed sight of the scrambling squirrel pushed him from concern to irritation in a hurry.

"Sandburg! What the hell is going on here?" Ellison roared as he stalked in.

"Not so loud…you'll scare the squirrel," Blair cautioned, pointing in the general direction of the invading rodent.

"Oh, for the love of…" snarled a tired, frustrated Sentinel who'd really been looking forward to the peace he'd expected to find at home.

The guys behind him thought it was all hysterically funny, which didn't help Ellison's mood. His place was trashed, or certainly seemed so on cursory examination. "Damn it, Sandburg, how did you manage to wreck my place when all you were supposed to do was buy the beer and chips for tonight?"

All humour, if there had ever been any, in the situation evaporated for Sandburg in that moment. The glare and disparaging tone, especially in the presence of the guys from Major Crimes, made him feel like a first-class fool…an incompetent fool at that. Swallowing hard, his jaw tightening, he bit his lip as he continued down the stairs, his desperate and woeful gaze skittering around the room…and landing just long enough on the clock to know he had really lost his grip on the passing of time. He had fifteen minutes to make it to Rainier if he was going to be on time to meet with his student.

Pulling off the apron, his head down and his voice tight, he skirted around Ellison and the others, mumbling, "I'm sorry, it was an accident…and I don't have time to explain. I have to get to the university." Grabbing his jacket, he pushed out the door and clattered down the steps, calling back, "I'll see you later."

Ellison stood with his mouth a little agape, unable to believe Blair had just walked out on the mess, as if he had no responsibility to either explain it or help clean it up. Meanwhile, the other guys, having taken in the immediate issue of an errant squirrel that needed eviction, had moved into the apartment, taking up strategic positions to herd it out the open balcony door. The smoke had pretty much cleared, and the place was freezing, so getting the door closed was their next priority…clean up could wait.

Working together, despite a few bad starts, with the squirrel scrambling up the bookcase, then flying over Rafe's head, then leaping to the television to avoid H, with a downward scramble under the sofa to get away from Simon, only to have to swivel suddenly to avoid Joel, the detectives finally managed to help the panicked squirrel find its way to the open door and safety.

Quickly sliding the door shut, feeling jubilant in having triumphed over the invasion of a clearly dangerous and disruptive wild animal, Simon turned and raised a triumphant fist with an impromptu cheer, which prompted H. to begin the celebratory rendition of 'We are the Champions'. The other guys joined in enthusiastically, virtually shouting out the lyrics, and laughing in culmination of their essentially atonal but very loud chorus.

Jim rolled his eyes, all the while engaged in an efficient and determined clean up of the kitchen, with a quick wipe down of the stairs and furniture to remove the tiny white tracks.

By the time he had finished the first cursory clean up, well, cursory in his view, Joel and H. had begun to gather up the tinsel and paper and ornaments, while Rafe and Simon raided the fridge. In the great scheme of things, it had been an amusing interlude, a distraction from the grim weariness that they all seemed to wear like a heavy cloak. The Christmas ornaments, and the bare tree, proved to be irresistible from the same perspective. How better to relax and get into the season than to grapple with the pleasant simplicity of a recalcitrant string of lights and the challenging task of making the fake and unbalanced tree look resplendent?

Jim put on the music, smiling despite himself when the Three Chipmunks invaded the loft in their turn, and then got out the chips and dip. Before long, the guys had the tree decorated, the residual mess packed away and were sitting down to some serious poker, relaxed and good humoured.

"What's taking Blair so long to get back?" Joel asked when they paused to sort out the order for pizza.

Ellison shrugged and sighed. "He's been so busy at the university lately, I'm not really sure. It's end of term, with all the papers and tests to be marked…I guess he figured he had to get it done and couldn't afford the 'time out' to play some cards…"

They all nodded at that, sorry that the kid never seemed to get a break, but the thought was passing at best, and they were soon back around the table, studying their latest hands and anteing up.

********************

Blair barely made it to the scheduled appointment on time. The kid was one of those having difficulty with meeting the deadlines for the term papers, a first year student who hadn't quite gotten the hang of managing his own time, without someone looking over his shoulder to make sure he got his homework done. Sandburg counselled the student, gave some suggestions for self organization and discipline, granted a two day extension on the deadline with the warning that there would be no further reprieve, and ushered the kid out of his office.

Blowing out a breath, he turned and looked at the piles of paper on his desk, realizing he still had his own tight deadlines to meet…and that there would be no fun or games for him that evening, even if he did have the slightest inclination to beard an enraged, bear-like, Sentinel in his den. Wearily moving around the desk, he collapsed into his chair and surveyed his depressing basement storage room cum office with discouragement. It was all just so dreary and bleak, so dark. Pushing his fingers through his hair, he thought back to the mess he'd left behind in the loft, and to Jim's irate words. 'My place,' Jim had said. 'My place.'

Planting his elbows on the desk, and then leaning his face into his hands, Blair sighed again. God, he was SO tired.

'My place.'

The words haunted him and made him feel guilty. He'd only moved in a couple of months before, on what was supposed to have been a temporary arrangement and had been only too grateful to accept that it could be of a more permanent nature. But, as much as he'd wanted, and had even started, to think of the loft as 'home', it wasn't. Just another place to crash, someone else's residence. Maybe he'd better start checking on other alternatives as soon as time permitted…which it wouldn't until he got all the work on his desk done.

Twisting his neck and stretching to loosen his tired and aching muscles, and with a final swipe at tired eyes, Sandburg went to work. The hours passed, his concentration only broken for long enough to rummage in his desk to find a granola bar, which he munched as he continued reading. It wasn't enough to assuage his hunger, but it would have to do. Finally, with a feeling of immeasurable relief, he finished entering the last grade on the last end of term report. Sitting back, his head tilted against the top of the chair, he closed his eyes briefly, almost succumbing to the overwhelming exhaustion he felt, but stiffened and straightened suddenly, forcing himself back to some semblance of alertness.

Standing, he gathered the reports together, shrugged on his coat, and, papers in hand, he locked up his office and headed up to the administration office. Depositing the reports in the inbox there, he shuffled down the dim, deserted hallways to the exit. At the door, he gazed with dreary resignation at the sleeting rain, pulled up his collar, and then hurried to his car. The heater wasn't working right, but he started the car up anyway to warm the engine while he cleaned the windshield, wincing and muttering at the icy dribble that leaked down the back of his neck, the rain somehow finding its way past his hair and the collar of his coat.

Sniffing, blowing on his hands, wishing he had his gloves which were buried in his backpack in the loft, he got into the car and headed through the dark, empty streets, wondering just exactly what time it was but figuring it had to be after midnight. With a little luck, he might score as much as seven hours uninterrupted sleep and he couldn't wait to get home, or at least to his bed.

Despite his best efforts to be cautious, and to stay awake while he was driving through the inclement December night, the white flowing particles in his headlights whirling into a tunnel of darkness were mesmerizing. He ached with exhaustion, his eyes burning from weariness and the cold seeped into his bones, stealing away the last vestiges of his energy.

********************

The guys had left a couple of hours before, and Jim had finished cleaning up the loft. Early on, he'd recognized the charred remains of what had once been a pecan pie, and he shook his head sorrowfully, understanding that Sandburg had been trying to do something nice, something that would make him happy. Turning, the lights of the tree glowing softly, the last soft strains of Christmas music playing out on the CD, he realized he was relaxed for the first time in what seemed like weeks. The chase after the squirrel had had its amusing moments, and the tree along with the comfortable camaraderie throughout the relaxed evening had worked its own magic…and gave a bit of perspective. The tree was up because, in the midst of everything else, Sandburg had taken the time to dig it and the ornaments out of the basement, though how the kid even knew the stuff was there was a mystery. The music on the CD was playing because somewhere along the line, his roommate had picked out the seasonal disks and loaded them in preparation for the evening.

Only one small problem remained.

Sandburg wasn't there to enjoy it all, too.

Frowning, Ellison glanced at his watch then ambled to the balcony doors, looking out into the night. It was almost one a.m. and he'd thought Blair would be home a good deal earlier. The kid worked too damned hard. Moving back across the room, Jim dialled Blair's office number, but there was no answer. He tried the kid's cell number next, and grimaced when he heard the little portable phone start to ring in the backpack by the door. Well, if Sandburg wasn't in his office, he must be on his way home. Expecting him anytime, Ellison headed upstairs to get ready for bed.

********************

The rough, abrupt jolt was a very rude awakening.

At first, muddled by sleep and confused, Blair stared out at the tree trunk directly in front of his car, kind of like an oversized doorstop, without understanding or recognition. Shivering, rubbing his badly aching forehead, he cursed himself with tired frustration. Just what he needed…falling asleep while driving. Jim would kill him…if he didn't kill himself and someone else first, he thought with a shudder of guilt at what might have occurred. Fortunately, he'd been driving so slowly that the impact had been minimal and absorbed mostly by his seatbelt. The car had stalled, and he restarted it, but when he put it into gear, his nearly bald tires spun on the ice and snow, incapable of traction.

"Damn it!" he cursed again, looking out into the night. He was on the edge of the park, and he remembered there was a bus stop around the corner about two blocks away. Disgusted, he got out of the car, locked it up and half sprinted, half slid his way to the clear plastic shelter, wondering how long he'd have to wait for the next bus. He was dizzy, and felt almost disassociated from his body, but wrote it off to tiredness and hunger. At least the shelter cut the wind a bit, and kept the icy rain off him. And, the bench looked soooo inviting.

Unable to resist, Blair laid down, too weary to sit upright, too tired and miserable to even care any more about the cold and damp. Hunching into himself for warmth, he faded off to sleep, secure in the hope the bus driver would spot him and honk the horn to rouse him.

Only, it wasn't the bus that roused him, but a police officer, the flashing crimson light on the top of the cruiser pulsing through the icy drizzle. If anything, Sandburg felt even more confused and muddled than he had when he'd been so rudely awakened by the tree that had jumped in front of his car.

"What's your name?" the officer was demanding, having satisfied himself that the dishevelled, long haired young man was awake enough, finally, to respond. The cop wondered if the kid was on something…there was no scent of alcohol in the air around him, but it had taken more than a full minute to wake him.

"Blair Sand…" Blair began to respond, but the impatient cop cut him off, asking if he had any ID. Shivering, his teeth chattering, Blair fumbled in pockets, blearily realizing his wallet must also still be in his backpack. Shaking his head, he mumbled, "Must'a left it in my backpack."

"What's your permanent address?" the cop asked then, studying the kid. He didn't seem to be drunk or drugged, but his reflexes were off and he seemed more than a little dazed. The police officer wondered how long the young man had been hunched on that cold bench in the middle of a freezing night.

Sniffing, frowning and squinting against his raging headache, Blair mumbled, "No permanent address. Right now, I'm crashing…"

But, again the cop cut him off. "Well, you can't crash here, my friend. You'll freeze to death. Come on, I'll give you a lift."

Agreeable to getting out of the cold, feeling totally disoriented and just wanting to sleep, Blair got into the cruiser and immediately drifted back into oblivion. When they pulled up in front of an emergency shelter for the homeless and for male transients, Blair couldn't at first figure out why he was in a patrol car or why he'd been brought here. But, the effort of thinking, of putting the pieces of the puzzle together, defeated him. Shivering, bleary, he finally just followed the police officer into the blessed warmth of the building, following someone else after that to a small back room that had a free pallet on the floor, the others already occupied by sleeping men. Grateful that he was finally someplace warm, and that there was place to stretch out, Blair crumpled down onto the thin mattress, asleep in moments…actually, given his concussion from having banged his head on the steering wheel, 'unconscious' might have been a more accurate description than 'asleep'.

An hour later, another patrol car spotted his abandoned car pressed nose-first against the tree on the edge of the park, and had it towed into the police compound.

********************

Jim had drifted into a restless sleep, wondering what was taking Sandburg so long to get home. When he woke in the morning, and realized that his roommate hadn't ever made it home, he felt the first anxiety and mild irritation, thinking Blair had once again fallen asleep in his office and probably hadn't even heard the phone when Ellison had tried to reach him the night before.

Shrugging it off, since this was far from the first time this had happened, Ellison got himself organized and headed downtown.

********************

Blair was rousted from his pallet along with everyone else at 8:00 a.m. He moaned in protest at being awakened, and then the odd odours assaulted him…unwashed men, damp clothing, the indefinably obnoxious air of an institution with a heavy overlay of disinfectant not quite masking the scent of urine. His head pounded relentlessly and he felt nauseous as he struggled upright and then onto his feet, blearily looking around at his strange surroundings. Rubbing his head, he wondered how he'd gotten there, the events of the previous night foggy at best. Swallowing, he followed the others out onto the street, and realizing it was well into morning, forced himself to lope toward the bus stop. The first order of business was to retrieve his car, followed in short order by a hot shower and bed.

Unfortunately, after he'd left the bus and trudged around the corner of the park, he saw with dismay that his car was gone. Looking up at the cloud-laden sky, he wondered if his luck could get any worse. Thoroughly chilled, wishing he had his hat and gloves, he rummaged in his pocket for more change for the next bus, and discovered his luck could, indeed, get worse. He didn't have enough for a phone call let alone bus fare. He stood for a moment, wondering which was closer…the loft or the university, and decided the loft was, marginally, the nearer of the two possible destinations. Besides, there was a bed in the loft and he just wanted to lie down and sleep.

With infinite weariness, feeling sick, frozen and dangerously close to a state of hopelessness, he began the long trudge toward his current residence.

********************

It was just after 9:00 a.m., when Rafe blew into the office, having come directly from the compound. He'd been checking out a drug suspect's vehicle for any hidden stashes when he'd spotted Blair's battered set of wheels nearby. From the damage, it was clear the vehicle had been in some kind of minor accident. Curious, he'd checked with the duty officer and learned the car had been towed in after having been found abandoned on the edge of Moorefield Park in the middle of the night.

"Hey, Jim," he called out as he made his way directly to Ellison's desk. "Is Blair all right?"

"Hmm?" Ellison murmured, looking up from a report he'd been studying with a shrug. "He must have slept in his office last night. I didn't see him this morning."

Confusion blanketed Rafe's face, soon followed by anxiety. "Then…you don't know about the accident?"

"What accident?" Ellison demanded, his attention now focused as he felt a sharp stab of worry.

"I don't know, exactly…but Blair's car is in the compound. It was found abandoned early this morning, having hit a tree on the edge of the park between your place and the university," Rafe explained.

"Hit a…" Jim's voice faded out, his face devoid of expression as he tried to take it in. "Jesus!" he muttered, as he wheeled and started to punch numbers into his phone. No answer in Blair's office. No one in the administration office of his faculty had seen him that day. And, then, the round of calls to hospitals in a radius around the accident site.

Nothing.

Jim consciously refused to even consider calling the morgue. Dan Wolf knew Sandburg, would recognize him if…but, Ellison's mind wouldn't even complete that thought. Next, he tried the duty desk, to ask if there was any record of Blair having been picked up anywhere near the accident site. It took a few minutes, but finally the connections were made between Sandburg and a 'Blair Sand', indigent youth, who'd been taken to the emergency shelter. Another call, only to learn that all the overnight 'guests' had been sent back out onto the street. Jim tried his own home number next, but there was no answer.

Slamming the phone down in frustration, Ellison wondered where in hell Sandburg was.

********************

Blair realized after a few minutes that something must actually be wrong with him. He could tell he was weaving a little as he trudged along, and the headache made his skull feel like the top of his head was about to come off. There was no way he was in any condition to walk all the way home. So, he tried hitchhiking, but the cars just whizzed right on by, the drivers wary of a staggering stranger with wild long hair.

A sharp cramp of nausea hit, increasing his dizziness as he doubled over, darkness speckling his vision. The headache stabbed sharply, feeling as if a molten spike was being driven into his head, and he collapsed on the side of the road.

A passing motorist spotted his crumpled form and, though the man didn't stop, he did pull out his cell and call 911.

********************

Jim had finally tracked down the patrolman who'd picked up Sandburg the night before, and had listened with growing concern to the officer's report. Blair hadn't had any ID on him, had said he didn't have a permanent residence…had been found sleeping in the sub-zero cold of a bus shelter and had seemed confused and disoriented. Apparently, Blair had said nothing about having been in a car accident nor did he ask that his roommate be called or that he be taken home, passing out almost immediately in the back of the squad car. The officer had had no reason to think Sandburg anything more than he seemed…a transient youth with no resources, who would have frozen to death if not taken to a shelter. His confusion had been written off as a result of exposure and/or the residual effects of drug usage.

His jaw tight, now very anxious, Jim bit his lip, wondering if he should just go out and search the city. In all likelihood, Sandburg had gone back to retrieve his car, found it gone, and would be heading back to the university or the loft. It didn't even occur to Ellison that the kid hadn't had enough money on him to even afford the bus fare. If it had, he would have only assumed that Blair would have called him, not realizing the bus from the shelter back to the vicinity of the park had tapped out the last of Sandburg's loose change. Had any of that occurred to him, the idea of a concussed and confused Sandburg wandering the freezing streets would have pushed his emotional index way past 'very anxious'.

The ringing of his phone demanded his attention, and hoping it was Sandburg, he virtually jumped on it, barking, "Ellison!"

"Detective Ellison?" came the unfamiliar voice. "This is the Emergency Unit at Cascade General. You'd called an hour or so ago enquiring about a Blair Sandburg?"

His grip tightening on the phone, his stomach plummeting, Jim replied, "Yes, I did…why?"

"Although he's not carrying any ID, one of our nurses recognized a man just brought in as Blair Sandburg. I thought you'd want to know," the maddeningly calm voice reported to him.

"'Brought in?'" Jim repeated, processing the information that Sandburg had been 'recognized', and had not 'self identified'. "What condition is he in?"

"He's unconscious, Detective. He apparently collapsed by the side of Henderson Ave and a motorist called it in. An ambulance was despatched to bring him to the hospital. More than that, I'm afraid I can't tell you over the phone," was the response.

"I'll be right there," Jim snapped, slamming down the receiver and grabbing his jacket on the way to Simon's office to tell him what was going on…and then he was loping out of the office, on the way to his truck.

********************

By the time Ellison made it to the hospital, Blair had regained consciousness. The warmth, combined with the nourishment now flowing into his body, courtesy of the intravenous glucose solution, restored him somewhat, though he still felt vaguely nauseous and the headache remained relentless. He and the doctor had just agreed that he had a mild concussion, and was suffering from the added effects of mild exposure, exhaustion and a lack of what would pass as food for too long.

Far too worried to stand on ceremony, or wait for information at the reception desk, Ellison had focused his hearing on the treatment rooms to find Sandburg, and then had simply burst in on the conversation.

"Chief…are you all right?" he blurted out, seeing his roommate conscious, and having heard a bit of the conversation.

Startled by Ellison's unexpected arrival, Blair's eyes flew wide open, but he hastened to assure the obviously anxious man, "Yeah, man…I'll be fine."

Anxiety flowing straight into frightened irritation, Jim demanded, "Damn it, why didn't you call me last night or this morning? I didn't even know you'd been in an accident until Rafe spotted your car in the compound…."

Deciding his patient didn't need the emotional stimulation of an aggressive interrogation at that moment, the doctor stepped between Ellison and the narrow examination table. It was only then that Jim recognized Dr. McCoy or McKay or whatever, from the day he'd first met Sandburg.

"Easy now, I'm sure your questions can wait. Mr. Sandburg is suffering from a mild concussion and exposure…not to mention an electrolyte imbalance from inadequate nutrition. He's in no condition to file an accident report just now…" the physician was saying, but Blair interrupted.

"It's all right," Sandburg said quietly, "I'm…boarding at Jim's place. He's just worried."

"'Boarding'?" Jim repeated, exasperated, the word bringing back the night officer's report. But he set that aside for a moment as he focused on the doctor. "He's going to be fine, right?" Ellison demanded, his voice tight.

"Yes, certainly, with a little food and rest, Mr. Sandburg should be fine in a day or so," the doctor reassured him.

"Can I take him home?" Jim wanted to know. The kid would rest a lot better in his own bed. "I was a medic in the forces…I can look after him."

"Jim, I don't want to bother you," Blair protested, having accepted the doctor's opinion that a day in the hospital for observation was required. His insurance would cover that.

Shaking his head impatiently, Jim kept his attention focused on the doctor. "Well," the physician allowed, "if you're a medic, and can agree to wake him every couple of hours to ensure lucidity and also agree to ensure he gets some soup and other easily digestible food into his system, then, yes, you could take him home."

Blair looked from one to the other, wondering when he'd become either invisible or incapable of deciding his own immediate future. "Hey…don't I get a say?" he interjected, really worried about being a burden on the already too busy and harried detective.

Turning with surprise to Sandburg, Ellison demanded, his tone bewildered and slightly hurt as he asked, "Don't you want to come home, Chief?"

Well, when it was put like that…

His expression uncertain, Blair replied, "Well, yeah, sure…but, you're busy, man…I'll be all right here until tomorrow when I can take care of myself."

Again shaking his head, Jim muttered, "Not that busy." Turning to the doctor, he confirmed, "I'll be taking him home now if you can arrange the discharge to my care."

"Certainly," the physician agreed. "He has a bad headache. If there are no problems with alertness within the next six hours, you can give him some aspirin. That, food and sleep should fix him right up."

Nodding, Ellison muttered, "Thanks," as the doctor detached the IV and took his leave of Blair and then left to do the paperwork for the discharge.

As Blair struggled to sit up and get off the examining table, Jim moved to give him a steadying, supportive hand. "Thanks, man," Sandburg murmured, for more than the help getting to his feet.

"No problem, Chief," Ellison replied quietly. Keeping a strong hand around Blair's arm, he guided his young friend down the hall and out to the truck. Once inside the vehicle, Blair slumped against the seat, one hand rubbing his aching forehead.

Jim focused on getting the truck underway, but once they were driving along the street, he flicked a concerned look at his roommate as he asked, "What happened, Chief? Why didn't you call me?"

Shaking his head wearily, Blair replied in an embarrassed monotone, "I don't know…I guess I fell asleep at the wheel on the way home last night, and woke up in front of a tree. I didn't realize I had banged my head so hard, and when the cop found me at the bus stop, I wasn't thinking very clearly. Next thing I knew, I woke up in a shelter. When I went back for the car, it was gone. I didn't have any money on me, so I started to walk home…and, I guess I must have passed out on the way."

"Well…at least you're okay," Ellison said, more to reassure himself than Blair at that point. There could have been so many worse outcomes, it didn't really bear thinking about. "We'll get you home, and I'll make you some tea and soup…then get you to bed. You look like you're just about dead on your feet."

"Jim…I can feed myself, man," Sandburg protested. "Really…you don't need to bother…"

"Where do you get this 'bother' stuff, Junior?" Jim demanded. "You've been hurt. It's no 'bother' to help you out. And…what was going on when you told the patrolman last night that you didn't have any 'permanent residence'? Or, just now, when you told the doctor you were 'boarding' at my place? I know you haven't taken out a life lease on the spare room, Chief, but I hadn't thought you were just 'passing through'," Jim asked, seriously 'bothered' by the implications of Sandburg's statements, much more than he was by the need to watch over the kid for the rest of the day. He'd come to rely on having Sandburg around to help him with his senses and had already begun to take the grad student's presence in the loft for granted. It was disturbing to find out that Sandburg evidently didn't also take their arrangement as a given.

Besides, in an odd way, he'd found he enjoyed Sandburg's company.

Blair sighed and looked out the window at the passing shops and office buildings. "I guess I was just thinking about what you'd said when you got home last night…" he said softly.

"Last night?" Ellison repeated, frowning, trying to remember. "I know I was upset about the mess…"

Blair blew out a bitter laugh. "Yeah…it was a mess all right. I'm sorry about that. I guess I fell asleep in-between putting the pie in the oven and setting up the tree…the smoke alarm woke me up," he reported with a chagrined and regretful look. "But, that's not what I meant," he clarified. "You said I'd trashed 'your place'…and, well, I guess that reminded me that I wasn't really a permanent fixture."

Looking away, swallowing, Ellison's expression slipped into remorse. "I'm sorry, kid…that's not what I meant. I was just…mad, I guess. I didn't mean it like that," he replied quietly. "The loft is where you live, Chief. If anyone ever asks, it's your residence, not just, I don't know, a place to 'crash' for a while."

The defensive look in Sandburg's eyes softened then, and his tense posture relaxed. "Yeah?" he sighed, immensely relieved when Ellison nodded emphatically.

"Yeah," Jim confirmed.

Smiling slightly, Blair nodded, letting that assurance sink in, with all that it meant…and all that it made him feel. "Thanks, Jim…I'm really grateful," he said softly after a moment, his voice a little rough.

Ellison looked away, nodding wordlessly, embarrassed and uncomfortable with the humble gratitude he heard in the younger man's voice. It didn't feel right that Sandburg should seem so grateful when he was the one giving so much help in working out the confusion of Ellison's senses. Not to mention all the time he put in at the station and on the streets, offering on-site back up and support. His eyes on the street, the detective noticed a pawnshop they'd visited a few days before, something about it now niggling at his mind, something that had occurred there…but the memory eluded him for the moment.

Finally, they were home and having sent Sandburg to have a hot shower and to change, Jim set about heating up some soup and making a pot of his roommate's favourite herbal mixture to promote relaxation. When Blair emerged with damp curls and a warm robe over his pyjamas, Ellison directed him to the sofa, closer to the warmth in front of the fire. It was only after he'd brought his roommate the bowl of soup and the mug of tea that his gaze drifted over the tree and the memory from the pawnshop emerged.

Sitting down in the chair across from Sandburg, Ellison reflected, "The other day, at the pawnshop, you were looking at some old wooden tree ornaments."You said they reminded you of something. But, you didn't say what."

Blair swallowed a spoonful of the rich, warm vegetable soup, savouring the taste and substance of it, as he wondered how to respond, how much to say. Though he'd spent the last few months getting to know Jim Ellison, he was conscious that he hadn't told Jim a whole lot about himself. Flicking a look up at Jim, seeing the honest interest in his eyes, Blair shrugged, his gaze returning to the bowl in his hands. "Well, not to make a long story of it," he began, not seeing the fleeting smile on Ellison's lips… 'succinct' was one of the few concepts that didn't seem to reside in Sandburg's repertoire of verbal abilities. "When I was a kid, I guess I was about three or four, my mom and I crashed for a while with some friends of hers. Anyway, the 'grandfather', who lived with them, liked to whittle and he made the most amazing little toys for me. My mom and I traveled light, so I never had a lot of toys, and none that took any space. Anyway …I…well, I really treasured those toys, little cars and wagons…they even had moving parts, man. The guy was an artist. Well, when I saw those old ornaments, they reminded me of him…his kindness and thoughtfulness. How much it had meant to me. I had those toys for years, until we got ripped off in a bus station one year just before Christmas. Silly, I guess…they were just 'things'…but, when I saw the ornaments, I remembered crying when I lost what old Ben had made for me. I felt like I'd lost him, then, too."

Sandburg's soft voice tapered off, and he had to swallow and blink hard, taking rapid refuge in his meal, spooning up another mouthful of soup to hide his embarrassment and surge of emotion.

Given Sandburg's reticence about talking about his past, this was all unexpectedly revealing…perhaps more than the kid had realized. But, a seasoned detective, Ellison could read between any number of lines. 'Traveled light' and 'crashed' meant they didn't have a place of their own. 'Not a lot of toys', mixed up with how much those handmade treasures had meant, spelled 'no other toys' most probably…and certainly no others once they'd been ripped off…and just at Christmas, too, when practically every other kid in America was anticipating a new haul of goodies, the sort of thing Sandburg had lost hardly even rating as stocking stuffers. But, the statement about feeling as if he'd lost 'old Ben' as well, spoke volumes about the transience of meaningful people in the young child's life, and how in his own way, he'd tried to hold onto the ones he'd cared about, even after his mother had moved on, taking him along for the ride. All of that blended into the disproportionate gratitude Sandburg had shown at being reassured that he had a 'permanent residence'… and Ellison thought again of the wretched warehouse where Blair had been living without complaint when they'd first met. How Blair had reacted when Jim had first told him he could stay after the first week in the loft was up. The wonder of it in the kid's face, the light of joy that had broken in his eyes at the thought of having a small, ill-furnished room of his own in a clean and decent place…for as long as he wanted it…had left Ellison feeling a little shaken and disconcerted at the time.

Unexpectedly, Jim felt a sudden thickness in his own throat and he looked away, nodding thoughtfully to himself, surprised at the ache in his chest. He tried to reconcile the perpetually cheerful, easy-going Sandburg, the 'so full of enthusiasm', who rarely complained about anything, always grateful for anything, seemingly so uncomplicated, Sandburg, with the hurt and evidently lonely child…and found his assessments of a glib and superficial flower-child throwback had been shallow and decidedly uninformed. Briefly, he wondered at how little he knew about this young man who held his sanity in those calm, steady hands…at that thought, he looked back and noticed those hands were trembling a little now with remembered emotion and grief.

"I see," Ellison murmured, to fill the silence, his restless gaze moving to the Christmas tree, at all the ornaments hanging there and he frowned. He never gave the 'stuff' he had any second thought. Had never really thought about how his own childhood, so filled with 'things', would have contrasted with the life of a child who had virtually nothing.

Blair had set aside the empty soup bowl and picked up the mug of tea, cradling it in his hands. Shrugging, he murmured, "It's no big deal…it was just that the memory kinda surprised me at the time, distracted me. I'm sorry…I know I should have been paying attention to the interview with the owner of the place."

Shaking his head, Ellison looked back at his roommate. "No need to apologize, Chief. I just didn't realize at the time what you were thinking about it…."

"Old history, man," Blair replied, trying for a smile to lighten what even he recognized as a tale right out of Dickens' darker moments. God, he'd sounded like some kind of pitiful waif, Tiny Tim, Pip and Oliver all rolled into one sorry image. "Long time ago and far, far away," he added to underscore the point. Stifling a yawn, his body shivering a little with fatigue, he decided to change and distance the subject, "If you don't mind…I think I'd really like to get some sleep. Thanks for bringing me home…"

Ellison smiled gently at his roommate as he rose to hold out a hand to haul Sandburg to his weary feet. "Sounds like a plan, Junior. I'll wake you in a couple of hours to make sure you're okay," he said.

"Thanks, Jim, I really appreciate you taking care of me, man," Blair murmured, still uncomfortable with being a 'bother' as he turned toward his room. It was pretty strange, and very, very nice, to have someone willing to 'bother' about him, willing to look in and make sure he was 'okay'.

Walking with him, a hand resting on his shoulder, Jim hastened to reassure him once again, "No problem, Sandburg. I'm just glad you're okay, and home where you belong."

********************

Once Blair's even breathing told him that the kid was sleeping peacefully, Ellison called Simon to explain why he'd be taking the rest of the day off, reassuring his boss that Sandburg would be right as rain in a day or so. Then, the detective slipped out of the apartment, intent upon running a few errands while his roommate caught up on some much needed rest.

********************

When Jim woke him up later in the afternoon, Blair discovered he felt a whole lot better and the headache was almost a memory. Relaxed, he reached for one of the books he kept by the bed for light, 'before sleep', reading, luxuriating in the rare opportunity to simply indulge himself. Smiling peacefully, he took a trip to the 'Two Towers', happily making his way again through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, losing himself once more in the richness and detail of the fantasy about quiet, unconscious heroism and the limitless loyalty of stalwart friends.

Later, over a light dinner of omelettes and salad, with toast and tea, Ellison regaled Blair with the story of how the errant squirrel had finally been evicted. Able to relax now with the memory of those moments of chaos and turmoil, Blair laughed heartily as he imagined the antics of so many very large detectives all trying to corral and herd one very small squirrel. Somehow, what had seemed so traumatic at the time, his worry about the mess, the hurt at Jim's rage and words, had muted to something that could now be viewed as an unintended accident of exhaustion, something actually quite funny.

As he cleared the table, and washed up, Jim continued the tale of the evening, about how they'd all then pitched in to decorate the tree, to the sound of Chipmunks singing. He recalled for Blair how it had been just the medicine they'd all needed to soothe their harried and more than slightly ragged spirits…even went so far as to compliment Blair for having thought about bringing up the tree, the ornaments and for choosing such light-hearted, and appropriately seasonal, music for the CD. Blair drank it all in, sitting back and smiling, feeling warmed by the approval he heard in Ellison's voice. Feeling good, that as tired as he'd been, he'd at least gotten them started on a pleasurable and relaxing evening. Gazing at the tree, his expression unconsciously revealed how much he wished he'd been a part of it all. Though 'Christmas' wasn't a part of his tradition, either ethnically or personally, he'd always loved this special time of year, when people reflected on the joys and gifts of their lives…their families and friends, the good times spent together…the peace of it. The love.

Jim spotted the expression, and he again felt that odd twist in his chest. There was a poignancy on Blair's face that hit him where he lived, cutting right through to his heart…a heart he'd thought well hardened and protected by very high, impregnable walls.

"Chief…why don't you go over to the living room, get warm by the fire. You still look a little peaked to me. I'll make us some hot chocolate and maybe see what's on television…or we could just listen to music, if you prefer," he suggested.

"Okay," Blair said with a smile, rather liking this 'being spoiled' treatment, as he rose to flick on the Christmas music…grinning as the cheerful sound of Chipmunks again filled the loft.

"Oh, by the way, Chief," Jim said casually as he filled the kettle, "there're a few decorations left for you to put on our tree since you weren't able to make it back from the university last evening. They're in the bag by the chair."

His brows raised in surprised delight, Blair's face lit up as he turned, as eager as a child, to find the few things left for him to add to finish their tree…thinking how really neat it was to think of it as 'their' tree. Blair tightened the belt of his robe as he shuffled his slippers across the floor, delighted by this small, commonplace, diversion.

Jim was watching, and listening, as Blair picked up the bag and opened it, reaching in all unaware…until his sensitive fingers realized what they were touching and he stilled with a gasp. Slowly, he pulled out the two small objects he'd first touched and recognized…the small wooden wagon, and the caboose. Unable to believe it, he opened the bag and peered inside, to find every last one of the tiny wooden hand-carved ornaments he'd seen at the pawnshop.

His shoulders trembled as he took a shuddering breath, his eyes filling with tears at the unexpected, unlooked-for and priceless, gift…a part of his childhood, something he'd thought lost forever…a gift of thoughtfulness and kindness…a gift of love. He felt Jim's large, warm hand grip his shoulder, and he sniffed, reaching up to brush the tear, that had slipped over his lashes, from his cheek with the back of his hand. Taking a deep breath, he didn't know what to say. Those tiny treasures were worth more than rubies or diamonds to him. They held the memories of an old man's love and affection for a child who knew no grandparents, of endless hours of pleasure through the years of his early childhood…and now, they held the meaning of Jim's thoughtfulness and care for him…a message of love from the past made newly bright by the love of his friend.

"I thought you should have a few of your own decorations for our tree, Chief…" Jim murmured, confused by his own emotions…happiness that he'd done something that meant this much to the kid, embarrassment, actually, at how good it made him feel, all mixed up with a kind ache that such a small thing could mean so much…and worry that maybe he'd embarrassed Sandburg with something so personal, surprising him so completely.

"I…I don't know what to say, Jim," Blair finally managed to murmur as he held the small objects tenderly in his hand. Turning, he looked up at his friend, everything he couldn't find the words to say written in his wide blue eyes. "Thank you…that's not enough," he hurried on, his voice desperately sincere, "not nearly enough, to tell you what this means, man, but I…well… thank you."

Nodding, having to blink himself and sniff, Jim smiled softly as he replied, "I'm glad they make you happy, Blair. So…go ahead…put them on the tree…"

Sandburg smiled then, too, wide and bright, his eyes glowing softly as he moved to the tree. But, then, he hesitated a moment before looking back over his shoulder to ask tentatively, "Uh…did you want to help me hang them?"

Grinning broadly, Ellison stepped forward as he reached for the bag. "Thought you'd never ask, Junior," he said happily as he reached in for an ornament and came out with the tiny locomotive. "You know, these are really well made…I was admiring them earlier. Do you think we should hang them up separately or attach all the pieces of the train together to put on the coffee table?"

"Why don't you put the train together while I hang the other pieces?" Blair suggested with a grin.

In a matter of minutes, the little train was chugging across the surface of the coffee table, powered by one very strong Sentinel who was having as much fun as any kid with a new toy. Finished with the tree, Blair joined him, and before long, they had created a virtual track past a mountain of magazines, and a forest of mugs of hot chocolate, running past marshmallow barns and houses, taking turns rolling the miniature train through the valley of their friendship.

Cutting a swathe through the forest, Jim lifted his mug and saluted his roommate. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he toasted with a delighted smile, then took a sip.

Sitting back on his heels, looking up at his friend, filled up with the warmth of love and the feeling of being, finally, 'home', smiling that incandescent smile, Blair replied with rich happiness, "Merry Christmas, Jim!"

Finis

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