It wasn't as if he'd never been homeless before after all, Blair thought.
Jim helped him downstairs with the few boxes of belongings that had survived the explosion at the warehouse and watched as Blair loaded them into his car. "You sure about this, Chief? I mean, I know I said a week but if you need a little longer to find somewhere to stay-"
"Jim, it's cool, okay?" Blair straightened and turned around. "I know you want your space back. It's fine, man." He watched as Jim shrugged.
"Nothing personal, Sandburg, I'm just not used to having a roommate."
"Hey, no offence taken. Look, I appreciate that you let me stay as long as you did. I know it wasn't easy, what with Larry trashing the loft twice and all, and I know I'm probably not the perfect roomie. I know I can be a little untidy-"
"A little?" Jim said but he smiled, taking the sting from his words. "Really, Sandburg, you were fine, a little messy maybe, and maybe a little noisy at times but, hey, you're helping me with this Sentinel thing, and you really helped me out of a tight spot with Earl's grandma so I figured it was the least I could do."
Blair smiled back, hoping he wasn't showing the disappointment he felt needling him. He would have liked to think that Jim had taken him in because he wanted to, because he considered Blair a friend now, not just because he wanted to show his appreciation for what Blair had done for him. "Hey, I was glad to help. So," Blair held out his hand and shook Jim's, "I'll get myself settled and I'll catch you at the station around lunchtime. I've got classes until 11. Okay?"
"It's a date," Jim said, stepping back so Blair could shut the car door. He raised a hand in a goodbye salute then headed back into the apartment building, coming back out a moment later just as Blair climbed into the driver's seat. Blair wound down his window. "You've got somewhere to stay tonight, right?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded, hoping Jim wasn't running a Sentinel lie detector on him right now. "Yep, got something sorted out. It's only for tonight though so I won't bother giving you the address now. But I'm pretty sure I'll have something permanent lined up by the time I see you tomorrow." He wound the window up quickly before Jim could ask him anything else and peeled out onto the street, honking his horn once in farewell.
Jim watched till Blair's car disappeared around the corner then went back upstairs, already anticipating with pleasure the quiet he he'd find there. Blair had been a decent houseguest, doing his best to keep his presence as unobtrusive as possible, but Jim had lived on his own for a long time and he'd missed the sense of satisfying isolation that came from doing that.
He wondered for a moment, as he poured himself a cup of coffee, whether he should have at least checked that Blair had enough money and a definite place to live but then shrugged the worry off. Blair wasn't a kid, and if he'd really needed any more of Jim's help, Jim was sure he'd have asked. He'd spoken up pretty quickly after his place had blown up. Anyway, Jim told himself, as he sat down with a sigh of genuine pleasure on his now completely-his-again couch, he'd done the friend thing for Blair, let him stay at the loft for a week, waved away Blair's offers to pay for anything. It wasn't like they were family, after all. Friends definitely, but there was no way he was going to start playing Wally to Blair's Beav.
Blair pulled over around the corner from the loft while he considered his options. He opened his wallet and grimaced at the measly twenty dollars he found inside. Not even close to enough for a motel room and his credit card had been maxed out for weeks. He wondered whether he should have asked Jim if he could stay on an extra couple of days, just till he had somewhere more permanent to live but quickly discarded that idea. They hadn't known each other that long after all, and Blair had the distinct impression that if Jim had really wanted Blair to stay with him, he would have pushed his offer. It was late, past nine o'clock and Blair didn't want to waste what money he had left, calling around to friends who'd probably not be able to help him out anyway. Finally coming to a makeshift decision, he started the engine and turned the car in the direction of the university.
His office door creaked as he pulled it open and Blair froze for a moment, turning his head to listen for approaching footsteps. Hearing nothing, he edged inside then tilted his shoulder to slide his backpack from his shoulder onto the ground. Opening it up, he pulled out the small camping blanket he'd rolled up inside then gave his office chair a wary overview. If he slept in that all night, he'd never be able to move in the morning. Finally, he just made a bundle out of a jacket and lay down on the thinly carpeted floor, rolling himself inside the thin blanket.
He was exhausted, both mind and body needing rest from the stress of the past couple of weeks, yet surprisingly, or perhaps, not so surprisingly, considering how cold he was, it took ages for him to fall into a restless, uncomfortable sleep.
A glaring light in his eyes woke him what seemed like only minutes later and he struggled up, placing a hand over his eyes. "What?" he mumbled.
"Mister Sandburg, is that you?"
Blair squinted up at the person standing over him and was relieved when the flashlight was turned away from his face. "Bert?"
"What are you doing sleeping here? You know it's against the rules." Bert frowned down at him and Blair managed to untangle himself from his makeshift bedroll and stood up, weariness making him waver unsteadily.
"I know. Look, Bert, it's just for tonight. My place got blown up-"
"What? Hell, are you okay?" Bert took Blair's arm and looked down into his face. "You need a doctor or the cops?"
"Nope, I'm fine and the cops know about it. Listen, I just didn't have anywhere to go for tonight so…"
Bert patted his shoulder and began to back out of the room. "That's fine, Mister Sandburg. It'll be our secret, but you'll need to find somewhere else to stay tomorrow night. Jack Castleman's on and he's a mean son of a bitch. He'll turn you in without turning a hair."
"I'll have something worked out by then." Blair shivered and picked up the blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders, then sat down on the hard floor and waved a hand at Bert. "Thanks, man."
"No problem." Bert turned and left then came back in, his jacket in his hand. He bent and placed it around Blair's shoulders. "Can't have them coming in and finding you frozen like a Popsicle on the floor in the morning, now, can we?" he said gruffly, waving away Blair's thanks. "You get yourself some sleep. I'll drop by before my shift ends and leave a cup of hot coffee on your desk for you. Goodnight."
Blair was already half-asleep again. "Thanks, Bert. I owe you one," he murmured around a jaw-cracking yawn.
Jim snuggled down under his comforter away from the chill of the night air. He gave a moment's thought to going down and cranking up the heat a little then decided he'd just get cold doing that and he was starting to warm up nicely now anyway. He wondered if Blair had found somewhere to stay for the night. Hopefully, if he hadn't, he would have had the good sense to call Jim and ask to come to the loft. Then again, Jim thought, turning over onto his back and staring up at the night sky through the skylight, he'd been pretty insistent about not wanting to put Jim out when the offer had been made back at the warehouse. The kid was independence personified. Jim had to hand it to him. Probably been taking care of himself since he started at the university at such a young age. They hadn't talked about Blair's family much but Jim had the distinct impression that his mother was more absent than present in the young man's life.
Jim rolled to his other side and watched the LCD display on the clock tick over to 11-15. He sighed, rubbed a hand over his gritty eyes and wondered whether he should save himself the worry and head on out to look for Blair. That was ridiculous, he told himself firmly. What was he gonna do? Put out an APB on the kid? Jim had no idea where to look for him and would Blair really want him doing that anyway? They'd grown progressively closer over the past couple of months, but it wasn't like he was Sandburg's big brother or something. Besides, Jim had always felt a little uncomfortable with the Samaritan routine. His thinking was that if someone asked for your help then you did what you could, but you had no right interfering in people's lives by insisting on giving help that wasn't asked for.
He flipped back to his original position, pulling his pillow over his head as if by doing so he could block out the images of Blair bunked down in his decrepit old car in a chilly, wet, windswept alley somewhere. It was another hour before he was able to get to sleep.
Blair groaned as he hauled himself stiffly up from the floor. As beds went, his office floor made a terrific floor, he decided. His stomach grumped hungrily at him but there was nothing in his office to eat. He hadn't done any shopping in several weeks. While he'd been staying with Jim, he'd had all he needed at the loft, and what money he'd had, he'd used to replace textbooks and a few of the clothes that had been damaged by smoke and water.
Heading to the restroom, he noticed a steaming mug on his desk and scooped it up gratefully. mentally blessing Bert for remembering his promise. After he finished it, he went and washed up as best he could, running a comb through his tangled hair quickly and dampening it down with water in an attempt to make it not too obvious that he'd spent the night camped out on his office floor. He shaved quickly with the disposable razor he kept in his office then cast a quick look at himself in the mirror and shrugged. He looked tired but not too ragged around the edges. He grabbed up his backpack and headed for his first class.
Jim looked up from his desk as Blair walked into the bullpen. He glanced at the clock and saw it was just after eleven, earlier than he'd expected to see Blair there. "Hey, Chief," he said, taking in Blair's tired face as his partner slumped into the chair across from him.
"Hi, Jim," Blair replied.
"You okay?" Jim asked.
"Sure. Why?" Blair yawned, rubbed at his eyes and eyed Jim's coffee mug with obvious longing.
"You look tired," Jim said, getting up and motioning Blair to follow him. He led the way to the break room and poured Blair a cup of coffee, then urged him down onto a chair at the table.
Blair almost inhaled the coffee and held the cup back out.
"Help yourself," Jim said, holding out his own now empty mug.
Blair drank the second cup more slowly but he still looked worn out as if he'd come in off a hard night on the town.
"Where'd you stay last night?" Jim asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. All of a sudden, the images he'd had in his head the night before of Blair sleeping in his car in a Cascade alley didn't seem too far-fetched after all.
"In my office," Blair said. "It's no big deal," he added quickly. "I just couldn't get hold of my friends after I left your place and it was too late to go trawling around looking for a motel so I just went to the university and slept there. It's cool."
"You could have come back to the loft," Jim reminded him.
Blair shook his head. "No. I've moved out, man. I can't come running back there every time I need a place to sleep or whatever. If I do that, I might as well have not moved out. You need your space back-"
"It would have been one night, Chief," Jim said forcefully. "It would have been better than sleeping on the floor of your office."
"I'm fine. Sleeping on a hard floor's supposed to be good for your back," Blair replied easily.
"*If* you have a bad back, maybe," Jim said. He shook his head. "Have you got somewhere to stay tonight?"
"Yeah," Blair said, grinning ruefully as his stomach grumbled. "Sorry, no time for breakfast."
"You know, Sandburg, you're not going to be any use to me if you're not getting any sleep and you're not eating," Jim said, somewhat ascerbically.
"Look, I told you I'm in this for the long haul and I'll be fine, all right?" Blair shot back. "I'm used to living like this. I did it for years when I first started at the U. I can handle it and I can handle working with you. I won't let you down. Sorry," he said as his stomach made its presence known again.
Jim sighed, stood up, took both his and Blair's cups over to the sink then turned back to face his friend. "Go grab something to eat then get back up here in a half hour or so. Simon's got a case for me. You got enough money to buy something?" he asked as Blair stood and walked to the door.
"I'm fine, man, thanks." Blair waved a hand over his shoulder and left.
The vending machines didn't carry much in the way of the food Blair preferred, but right now he was hungry enough that he'd have gone to Wonderburger if Jim had offered to treat him. He looked over the selection and decided on corn chips, plugged his last coin into the slot and waited… and waited. He groaned as the packet stayed stubbornly on its hanger. Sighing, he resisted the urge to kick the incalcitrant machine and turned away.
"Machine eat your money, Sandburg?"
Blair looked up into the face of Simon Banks and nodded, side-stepping to allow the captain to bypass him and get to the machine.
"I didn't have time to for breakfast this morning," Banks said, grabbing the machine by its sides and giving it a firm shake. When that had no result, Banks turned to the machine next to it, fed some money in and selected a chocolate bar.
Blair watched enviously as the captain pulled the bar out of the tray and ripped off the covering, taking a huge bite. His stomach growled again and he blushed as Banks raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
"MIssed breakfast too," Blair said.
"Try this machine. It seems to be working," Banks said. He stood for a moment, watching as Blair looked down at his feet. "You out of cash?" he asked finally.
"Yeah, um, haven't had time to get to the bank," Blair mumbled. He turned to walk away then felt the familiar hot-cold sensation of a head spin and put out a hand, grabbing at the wall. There was a strong arm under his and Banks' dark eyes looked worriedly into his face.
"You okay, kid?" Banks asked.
"Yeah, sorry, head spin," Blair whispered, feeling sweat beading his forehead.
"Here." Banks maneuvered him into a chair and pushed him gently forward. "Keep your head down for a couple of minutes." The hand Banks had on his neck was moving in small circles and Blair closed his eyes till the dizziness passed.
He sat up slowly. "Sorry, man," he said, looking up at Banks. "Guess I'm tired too."
Banks gave him a speculative look then walked across to the vending machine again and fed more coins into the slot. He grabbed out the bag of chips and the giant cookie he'd selected then turned back to Blair. "Here," he said gruffly. "Get yourself on the outside of that. Then head down to the locker room in the basement. There's a cot there. Get some rest. I don't want to see you in the bullpen for an hour at least."
"But Jim said we were meeting with you-" Blair began, tearing open the cookie wrapper and taking a huge bite. He closed his eyes in bliss as he chewed. He'd never have believed junk food could taste so good.
"Jim can meet with me and fill you in later," Banks said, giving him a hand up out of the chair. "Go, scoot," he ordered, a smile touching his lips. "I'll explain it to Jim."
"Captain's orders, Sandburg. Do as you're told or I might think about revoking that ridealong of yours till you've been cleared by a doctor."
Blair gulped at that. No way could he afford a doctor's bill right now. He gave a sloppy salute and turned on his heel, heading for the elevator.
"Wait a minute," Banks called and Blair turned around again to have a bottle of orange juice shoved into his hand. "Go on," Banks said. "I'll see you in an hour or so."
Banks detoured by Jim's desk on his way through the bullpen. "Ellison, can I have a word?"
"Sure thing, sir," Jim replied, looking up from the file he was reading.
"In my office," Banks added.
"Right, right, um, I'll just grab Sandburg." Jim looked up at the clock then around the room. "Where the hell is he anyway? He said he was just going to grab something to eat from the snack machine." He sighed, stood up and walked towards Simon's office.
"He's resting in the locker room right now," Banks said conversationally, following Jim in and shutting the door.
"What?" Jim looked perplexed and Banks wondered if Jim had even seen Blair today. "Why? What's wrong?"
"Did you see him today?" Banks asked, sitting down and motioning to Jim to do the same.
"Yeah, I told you he said he was going to the vending machine in the hall. I told him we had to meet with you about the case…" Jim trailed off and finally sat down.
"I saw him at the machine. He'd lost his money in one and when I asked him why he didn't try the other one, he gave me some bullshit about not having been to the bank yet. Then when he went to leave, he almost passed out. Said it was a headspin from being tired, but Jim, the kid looked like he was half-starved." Banks waved a hand as Jim began to stand. "Sit down, he's fine. I got him some food and juice and sent him down to the locker room, told him to get some sleep for an hour." He fixed Jim with a direct look. "What's going on?"
Jim shrugged. "He moved out of the loft yesterday. Told me he knew it was time for me to get my place back to myself. I told him he could stay till he found somewhere permanent," Jim added defensively, "but he refused. Said he had somewhere to crash last night and then today he'd be able to move into permanent digs. He rolled up this morning looking a little ragged around the edges, said he'd slept on the floor of his office."
"The floor?" Banks raised an eyebrow at that. "Why didn't he just go a motel?"
Jim rubbed at his eyebrow. "I'm guessing he's broke. I mean, he always skates close to the line with his money, pretty much lives from week to week but I just never thought about whether he had enough when he left. Just assumed he did or if he didn't, he'd ask for a loan."
"He been paying rent at the loft?" Banks asked.
"Well, yeah, a little, just enough to help cover the utilities and some food. I didn't really need him to but he insisted. He's kinda independent." Jim quirked a grin at Simon who returned it. "Damn! I should have realized. He had to replace a lot of his stuff when the warehouse blew up and he insisted on paying the deductible for the video camera he'd borrowed from Caroline that night too. I should have pushed him harder before he left."
"Jim, he's not your kid," Banks reminded him.
"No, but he is my friend and my partner, for now at least." Jim stood up. "Mind if I go check on him, sir? If he's up to it, I'll bring him back up to talk about the case, otherwise I'll send him back to the loft so he can get a decent rest before he has to head back to school."
"Go on," Banks said, waving him out. "I'm not gonna get any real detective work out of you till you know he's okay, anyway."
Jim wondered about that on the way down in the elevator. Did he really worry about Blair that much? Yeah, he decided with some surprise, he did. Hell, he'd spent most of the night tossing and turning because he was worried the kid was sleeping on the streets. Obviously, his Sentinel overprotectiveness hadn't been such a secret to the captain though.
Blair yelped in surprise and pain as the cot he'd been sleeping on was overturned, awakening him abruptly from a deep sleep. He landed hard on his stomach, the wind knocked out of him, and gasping to regain his breath, rolled over onto his back. "What's the problem?" he managed to grunt out, keeping one arm wrapped over his aching belly.
"This is the police station, buddy," the man standing over him said. He reached down and hauled Blair up by one arm, holding onto him while Blair bent forward, trying to inhale as deeply as he could. "You can't sleep here," the man said when Blair straightened up. "Plenty of shelters around or I can arrest you for vagrancy. That way you can spend the rest of the day sleeping it off in a nice, warm cell."
"I think there's been a misunderstanding," Blair said, looking up into the cop's face. "I'm Blair Sandburg. I work here… well, kind of. I'm Detective Ellison's partner."
"Yeah?" The cop looked conflicted and Blair chose the moment to pull his arm out of the man's tight grip. "Hey, don't you go anywhere," the cop warned him, grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and keeping him in place.
"No, really. Look, call upstairs to Major Crime and speak to Captain Banks. He'll tell you-"
"What the hell are you doing to my partner, Wilson?"
Blair felt his knees almost give way with the relief at the familiar voice.
Wilson's hand dropped away from his neck and Blair stood up straighter, managing a smile as Jim approached. "Just a misunderstanding, man," he said, rubbing his belly ruefully. He was pretty sure he'd have a bruise there come morning.
"Ellison?" Wilson grinned, patted Blair's back none too gently. "He really does work here?"
"Well, I'd say 'work' is perhaps too strong a term for it, but yeah, he's a civilian observer working with Major Crime," Jim replied. He gave Blair a searching look. "You okay, Chief?"
"I'm fine." Blair shrugged away the concern, forced himself to drop his hand from his still aching abdomen and smiled up at Wilson. "No hard feelings, man, all right?" He held out his hand and Wilson shook it.
"Sorry, kid, I thought you were a vagrant stumbled in off the street to sleep off a bender," Wilson said. He waved a hand at Jim then walked off in the direction of the lockers.
"You sure you're okay?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Blair yawned hugely. "Sorry."
"Why don't you lie down for a while longer?" Jim suggested.
"Nah, it's okay. We meeting with Simon?" Blair turned and picked up his backpack, looping it over his shoulder.
"Sure." Jim led the way out to the elevator. "Why don't you come to the loft for dinner tonight?" he asked once they were inside.
"Oh, I don't know." Blair looked conflicted. "I really should go find somewhere to st-" He stopped abruptly and looked down at the floor.
"I thought you already had a place to stay," Jim said mildly, stepping out of the elevator as it halted on the seventh floor.
"I did. It didn't work out," Blair mumbled, following Jim to Simon's office.
Jim stopped outside the closed door and turned back to face his partner. "So, come back to stay at the loft till you find somewhere else. It's no biggie," he added at the reluctance on Blair's face. "Look, I put up with you for a week, another few days won't kill me."
Blair shook his head. "It's okay, I got a lead on another place anyway. Dinner would be nice though."
"All right." Jim knocked on the door and opened it as he heard the summons to enter, standing back to usher Blair ahead of him. "But this time I want an address and phone number, okay?"
"No problem." Blair shot him a grin on the way through. "Hey Captain, thanks for helping me out earlier."
"That's all right." Banks gave him a searching look then glanced at his watch. "You didn't get much sleep."
"It was a power nap. I feel much better," Blair replied, still smiling. He sat down in one of the chairs opposite the desk. "So what have we got?"
Jim sat down in the chair next to him. "Sir?"
"We've got word coming in on a drug smuggling ring using Cascade as a pipeline to move the drugs on up from Washington to Canada," Banks said. "Word is they're moving on Friday night."
"How reliable is the word, sir?" Jim asked. "Not much point wasting too much manpower on it if it's just a squib, is there?"
"That's why I called you in on it," Banks replied. "The snitch has steered us wrong a couple times before." He held up a hand as Jim started to break in. "He's also given us some good stuff."
"Who's the snitch?"
"Paglio," Banks replied, grinning at Jim's frown. "Yeah, I know you two have a history, Jim."
"You do? What history?" Blair broke in.
Jim sighed and turned sideways to look at Blair. "A couple of years ago Paglio told me there was a white slavery ring trafficking girls from here to the Middle East. Gave us a dock number and the name of a ship that was supposedly going to have several young girls aboard who'd been kidnapped and were being sold to bidders in foreign countries."
"And?" Blair nodded yes to the mug of coffee Simon was holding out to him, took a sip then looked at Jim again.
Jim declined the coffee. "And," he went on, "turned out the only girl on the ship was Paglio's girlfriend who'd decided to break up with him because she'd fallen for the captain of the ship and had signed on as cook for its voyage to the Middle East." He glowered at Blair who was smiling broadly. "It wasn't funny, Sandburg. We wasted a lot of man-hours on staking out the ship, running checks on the captain and crew-"
"What about the other girls?" Blair asked. "Did he give you names or-?"
"That's why we had to follow it through," Simon broke in. "He used names of girls who were actually missing so we had to make sure."
"Wow," Blair said. He shrugged. "He must have really loved the girl to do something like that. I mean he must have known he'd be in a heap of trouble once you were onto him."
"Yeah, he loved her all right," Jim said sardonically. "He loved her so much that the week after she went back to him, he broke her jaw and gave her three broken ribs to prove it to her. The guy's a slime, sir." He turned back to Simon. "You really want to trust him on this?"
"We're coming up empty with everyone else," Simon said. "I figure with you on the job, doing your Sentinel thing we can maybe cut down on manpower anyway, in case it all comes to nothing. I'll have a car nearby for backup but you can keep watch on the place. If you see anything, you call them. If it doesn't pan out-"
"I've lost a night's sleep," Jim muttered with a grimace. "Yeah, okay. You gonna be up for a stakeout Friday night, Chief?"
Blair shrugged. "Sure."
"You might want to make sure you actually get some sleep between now and then," Jim put in. "Why don't you just come back to the loft till then."
Blair was already on his feet. "Nope, it's fine. As a matter of fact, I'm going to make a few calls now."
"What about dinner?" Jim called as the door closed behind him. He stood up. "That all, sir?"
"Yep." Banks handed over the file. "Everything you need to know is in here." He motioned toward the door. "You sure he's okay?"
"Yeah, he'll be fine. If he hasn't got a place to stay by tonight, I'll hogtie him and drag him to the loft in the back of the truck if I have to." Jim headed out to the bullpen, looking around for Blair.
There was no sign of him there and Jim opened his hearing up, searching for some sign of where he'd gone. All he got in return was a cacophony of voices that could have been anyone's and the start of a headache. He winced and pulled it back then turned toward the door as Brown came in. "Hey, H, you seen Sandburg?"
Brown nodded. "Yep, passed him as I was getting out of the elevator. He was going down. Said he was heading off to find some digs."
"Damn." Jim walked over and sat down at his desk and opened the file. He'd just have to hope Blair called him later or just turned up at the loft for dinner.
Blair gave serious thought to calling his mother and asking her to float him a loan. Sitting on a park bench not far from the station, he pulled out his wallet and riffled through it for the scrap of paper with her most recent phone number on it. She could afford to lend him the money without doubt. Her parents had left her well provided for when they'd died a few years before. Naomi had made good use of the bequest for herself, saying she'd always wanted to travel and that if Blair was so insistent on staying in Cascade then there was no reason why she shouldn't. He'd never begrudged her that, though there were times, like now, when he wished she was a little more present and available. Stuffing the piece of paper back in his wallet as he remembered the argument they'd had over him choosing to stay on at the University, rather than choosing to travel with her, he knew he couldn't do it. Couldn't go crawling back with his tail between his legs, admitting she'd been right - that he wasn't able to manage on his own. After all, he had until recently.
Shaking himself mentally, he stood up and walked back to his car. He'd been in tight spots before. This was just a temporary aberration. All he had to do was ride it out, go with the punches and next thing he knew he'd be back on his feet again. A couple of weeks and he'd have a new study planned and be able to apply for a grant.
He slid behind the wheel of the car, thinking wistfully of how he'd told Jim that his story could be a bestseller. He still thought he was… pardoning the pun… right on the money with that. But Jim had said it had to be their secret and Blair had no intention of breaking their agreement now. Nope, he decided, starting up the car and pulling out into the traffic, he'd make do, rub along, just like he'd always done. He'd take it a day at a time. All he had to do for now was find somewhere to park the car, some out of the way spot where nobody would worry about him sleeping in it. He could get showers at the PD and the University. Food, he'd worry about as and when his stomach demanded it. He'd take Jim up on his offer for dinner tonight, sleep in his car and make sure he was ready for the stakeout on Friday. With that out of the way, he could apply himself to finding a new grant project. With that thought in mind, he headed back to the university to finish his classes for the day.
"Hey, Chief," Jim said as he opened the door. "Glad you decided to come."
"Thanks for inviting me." Blair looked around the familiar room, wistfulness tugging at him. "Hey, something smells good," he added, wrinkling his nose appreciatively and making a determined effort to shake off his melancholy sense of homesickness.
"Veal Scallopini with lemon sauce," Jim answered casually but Blair noticed the glimmer of appreciation in his eyes.
"Wow, bringing out the big guns," Blair remarked, walking into the kitchen. "What's the occasion?"
Jim moved around him to the fridge and pulled out two beers, passing one to Blair. "Nothing special," he replied with a shrug. "Just thought you could do with a decent meal for a change."
"I only moved out a couple of days ago," Blair said uneasily. He twisted the top off the beer bottle and took a quick sip. "So," he began, "you really think the stakeout will be a bust?"
Jim shrugged again. "Maybe. Let's not talk shop for tonight. We'll just have a nice dinner, watch a movie, have a couple of beers. What do you think?"
"Works for me." Blair chugged the rest of his beer while Jim piled the food onto plates and carried them through to the dining room. "Well, get to work, Sandburg," he called over his shoulder. "Salad and wine in the fridge."
"Some thing's never change," Blair murmured.
"What's that?' Jim said with a grin that gave away the fact he'd heard every word.
Blair just grinned back and opened the fridge.
It had been a nice evening, so nice that Blair had almost caved in when Jim asked him if he was sure he didn't want to stay the night. He'd given serious thought to saying yes, thinking back over the evening, sitting with Jim, shoulder to shoulder, trading insults on the abilities of the opposing team as they watched the game.
But by the time the game ended, he'd stiffened his resolve and shook his head when Jim offered. "Thanks, man. I appreciate the offer, but hey, I gotta get back to making my own way, you know." He'd been successful enough in his deflection that Jim hadn't even thought to ask him where he was staying.
Jim had narrowed his eyes, frowned, but acquiesced gracefully enough and Blair had ended up back in his car, tooling around the streets looking for an out of the way place to park, wondering, as he settled in for the night on the back seat of the car, why he was being so damned stubborn?
It wasn't like he thought Jim didn't actually mean it when he'd offered to let Blair stay a bit longer, after all. The man was generosity personified. He'd already shown that side of himself to Blair often enough. It was more about Blair needing to keep things between them on a business footing, in a way, Blair decided.
He plumped his pillow more comfortably beneath his head and rolled to his back, looking out at the bridge span above him. He and Jim were already close, too close in some ways. His Sentinel dissertation was too important to him to mess it up by going native.
There was a deeper reason too, Blair acknowledged now. He wanted Jim's respect. Wanted him to know that no matter the odds, Blair would come through. And he would, just like he had every time life had thrown him a curve ball before. It just might take him a little longer this time.
Blair rolled to his side so he was facing the back of the seat and began his relaxation technique. He was exhausted still, despite the curtailed nap he'd taken earlier that day in the locker room. Part of gaining Jim's respect would come by showing the Sentinel that he could take a licking and still come up ticking, but right now, he was beginning to lag. Resolutely, he relaxed each muscle group in increments and counted himself down towards sleep. By the time he'd reached his arms and a hundred, he was out for the count.
The sound of breaking glass brought him awake with a start. Rolling to his back as best he could in the confined circumstances, he blinked up into the flashlight shining into his eyes. "What's happening?" he yelled.
"Shut the fuck up!" a voice shouted back and then he was being pulled over the seat back into the front seat and then out onto the ground outside the car.
He struggled to get to his feet then subsided as something caught him a glancing blow on the side of his head.
"Don't get up!" the voice warned.
He stayed where he was, slumped on his haunches, head down, blood trickling down the side of his face. "What do you want?' he muttered.
"Just some fun, man," another voice replied.
Blair managed to angle his head up a little, looking through blurred vision at the men standing beside him. They weren't much more than kids he realized - teenagers with time on their hands and nothing to fill the hours with.
"Take the car and everything in it," he blurted out.
One of the kids kicked the tire disinterestedly. "Doesn't look like it's worth much," he said.
"Then what the hell do you want?" Blair asked, anger building in him now, demanding expression.
A siren wailed suddenly nearby and the kids stiffened. One of them bent down and grasped Blair's hair, yanking it hard to pull his face up. "Keep your mouth shut, hippie or we'll be back."
With a final kick to Blair's mid-section that left him gasping for breath, the kids took off.
Blair finally managed to turn his head enough to see the blessed sight of a patrol car pull up behind his car. Sitting back up, one arm wrapped protectively around his aching belly, he looked up as the cops reached him. "I am *so* glad to see you guys," he said, starting to stand up.
"Don't move," one cop said, aiming his weapon at Blair's head.
"What?" Blair looked at him in disbelief. "Hey, I'm the victim here," he said. "I just got mugged." He indicated his bleeding head wound with a shaky finger. "The kids took off that way." He pointed to where he'd seen them go.
"This your car?" the second cop asked.
"Yeah," Blair replied. He felt nauseous now, his head pounding, keeping time with the hammering of his heart.
The cop bent in through the open door and peered inside, shining his flashlight around the small space. "You been sleeping here?" he asked, straightening up.
"Yeah," Blair replied. "Just for tonight," he added quickly. Surely they weren't going to…
"Please put your hands behind your back, sir," the first cop said. He snapped cuffs on as Blair complied. "You're under arrest for loitering. Please listen as I read you your rights."
"Oh for crying out- Listen, some punks hauled me out of my car and tried to beat the crap out of me!" Blair yelled, wincing as his headache flared in protest. "Why don't you chase them?"
The second cop looked in the direction the kids had taken off in. "Too late now," he said with a shrug, "but you can give a description at the station." He placed a hand under Blair's chin and lifted his head, shining the flashlight beam on the gash. "He's got a nasty cut here, Marco. Maybe we should swing by the hospital on the way."
Marco grinned as he pulled out his Miranda warning card. "Doesn't look like he's got insurance, Ted," he said. He read the warning quickly and then impersonally ushered Blair towards the cruiser.
"Hey, can you let me lock up my car before we go," Blair protested. "My laptop and all my notes are in there."
A hand fisted in his hair brought him to a sudden, painful stop and he gasped.
"You've got a laptop?" Ted asked doubtfully.
"Probably stolen," Marco said. He yanked Blair's hair harder. "Is it?" He turned to his partner. "There've been those breakins over on the East Side…"
"Marco, ease up a bit," Ted said, stepping forward and grasping Blair under the elbow. "The kid looks like he's about to fall in a heap. Hey, what's your name?"
Blair tried to shore himself up, locking his shaking knees. "Blair Sandburg," he responded. "My wallet's in my jacket pocket."
Ted went back to the car, grabbed Blair's jacket off the front seat and returned, riffling through the pockets as he walked. "Hey, what's this?" He held up Blair's observer's credentials, shone the light on the photo then on Blair's face. "It's definitely him," he said.
Marco mercifully released his grip on Blair's hair, grabbing Blair's arm one-handed as Blair almost fell. "You okay?" he asked belatedly.
Blair nodded, wishing he hadn't as nausea surged suddenly. "Feel sick," he whispered.
"Shit!" Marco turned him and pushed him onto his knees, fisting one hand in the back of Blair's shirt to keep him from falling face-first to the ground.
Blair retched a few times, losing everything he'd eaten that night and what felt like for the past few days. Panting, he leaned forward, head bowed and tried to regain control.
Ted was crouched at his side now, a worried look on his face. "You're with Major Crime?" he asked hesitantly.
"I work with Jim Ellison," Blair whispered, swallowing down the bitter remnants of his nausea.
"Damn," Marco muttered from behind. He gave Blair's shirt a shake. "What the hell are you doing sleeping out here?" he asked. He unlocked the cuffs and released Blair's hands.
"Long story," Blair replied. "I don't feel so good," he added.
"You don't look so good either," Ted remarked. "Marco, what do you want to do?"
"You heard about Ellison? He's hard as nails. If this guy really is his partner…"
"Yeah, I know, goodbye patrol car, hello walking the beat," Ted said.
Blair let his chin drop to his chest, letting the words wash over him. He felt like roadkill. Right now he didn't much care what they did with him. At least if they arrested him, he'd get to sleep inside a cell rather than outside in a cold car.
"Here, let's get you up."
There was hand under his elbow, urging him to his feet. Blair stood, swaying slightly, his headache burgeoning to new heights. "Where we going?" he mumbled, keeping his eyes focused blearily on his feet as he was propelled along.
"Hospital. We need to get you checked out-"
"No!" Blair managed to stop, hauling himself more or less upright. "Can't afford it."
"The state will pay for it," one of the cops said, ushering him on again. "Watch your head," he said, placing a hand on Blair's head as he pushed him inside the cruiser. "I'm gonna sit back here with him, Marco. Make sure he doesn't throw up again or pass out."
"Yeah, all right. It's breaking procedure but-"
"At least this way we can tell Ellison we took care of the guy, right?"
Blair felt himself shoved along the seat till he was up against the door on the other side. He rested his head against the window and closed his eyes. Jim was gonna be so pissed- "Hey!" He jerked himself up, clutching at his ribs as the movement jarred the pain to life again. "I don't want you to call Jim," he said, looking at the cop sitting next to him.
"Why don't we wait on that till the doc's looked you over," Ted said, handing Blair a handkerchief to hold against the gash on his head. "Don't want you bleeding all over the upholstery," he added as Blair took it with a muttered thank you.
Blair pressed the cloth to his head then leaned back against the window again as the car moved off. He'd sort it out later when he was feeling better.
"Ah crap, looks like we've got a mugging in progress."
Blair bolted upright at Marco's words and looked out the window. A woman was crouched on the sidewalk, hands held protectively over her head as a man kicked out repeatedly at her.
"Do we call it in or stop?" Marco asked.
"Stop!" Blair yelled. "She could be dead by the time another unit gets here."
Ted leaned forward, his hand on Marco's shoulder. "He's right, partner."
The cruiser screeched to a tire-burning stop, Marco out of the door almost before it had completely ceased moving. Ted flung open the rear passenger door and piled out after his partner. "You! Stay in the car!" he warned Blair.
Blair held up his hands in a gesture of surrender but moved closer to the open door as Ted took off toward the woman. A shadow on the periphery of his sight caught Blair's attention and he leaned forward, squinting to get a better look through his still blurred eyesight. "Shit!" he muttered, scrambling out the door and heading for the cops in a shambling run. "There's another one!" he yelled, looking on in horror as the second perp pulled a knife from behind his back, holding it in a classic throwing pose aimed at Ted's back. Blair measured the distance between himself and the perp. With a grunt of pain, he threw himself at the perp's knife hand and latched on desperately, twisting as hard as he could.
There was an explosion of lightening across his abdomen as the perp got the upper hand and managed to bring the knife back down.
Blair fell back in shock, one hand covering the gash in his belly, feeling the blood warm and sticky on his fingers.
"Come and get it, creep," the man taunted, the knife waving in his hand, its blade catching the reflection of the streetlight and sending arcs of white light to lance painfully through Blair's head.
Blair stepped forward then back, feinted left, then right, the knife following him as he weaved. "Oh for crying out loud," he muttered finally in frustration. He took a step back then moved forward onto his right foot. "This has been a really shitty night," he said as he lifted his left foot and swung it as hard as he could into the perp's unprotected groin.
The man gasped in pain and fell to his knees, the knife spinning harmlessly across the pavement.
Blair moved forward and knocked the man's hands out from under him with one kick, sending him crashing face-first to the sidewalk. He planted his foot on the man's back, watching as Ted ran across to them.
"You can let him go now," Ted said, taking out his cuffs and restraining the perp. "You! Don't move!" he warned the writhing man.
"He kicked me in the balls, man. That's police brutality," the perp whined.
"He's not a cop," Ted said with an air of satisfaction, giving Blair a broad smile. "He was making a civilian arrest after you attacked him with a knife. Not gonna look good on your booking sheet, son."
Blair suddenly found himself on his butt on the concrete, feeling as if his legs had turned to rubber. He touched a hand to the gash in his belly, wincing at the sting.
"You doing okay?"
Blair looked up to find Marco beside him, the cop's hand firm on his shoulder. "Not really. I'd really like to go home now."
Marco tousled his hair. "You mean that car of yours?" he asked. "Didn't look like much of a home to me."
Blair closed his eyes, bending forward to rest his head on his raised knees. "Doesn't matter," he whispered. "I'm fine."
"Yeah, sure you are, Rambo. You just hang tough a little longer. There's an ambulance on the way-"
"I don't need an ambulance!" Blair interjected, his head jerking up. "You can give me a ride to the hospital-"
"Uh uh, not me, man! You're a trouble magnet on legs." Marco ruffled his hair again then stood up. "Ambulance, hospital, then you can go wherever you call home, okay?"
"I'm not under arrest?" Blair asked uncertainly.
"Nah. Hey, like you said, you were the victim right?" Marco grinned down at him. "You want me to call Ellison, get him to come pick you up?"
Blair almost said no but suddenly the lure of home and friendship was too hard to resist. He 'd been right - it had been one hell of a shitty night after all. "Yeah," he replied, smiling up at the cop. "That'd be good."
"Mr. Sandburg, I'm Doctor Stacy. I'm just going to check you over then we'll put some sutures in those cuts, okay?"
Blair blinked up through the blinding emergency room lights and managed to summon up a smile. "Thanks," he said.
By the time the exam was over, he was feeling like he'd been run over by a truck. Bruises seemed layered upon bruises, his head ached mightily and the gashes along his belly and his forehead throbbed.
"Okay, you don't seem to have a concussion so I'm happy to give you a narcotic for the pain," the doctor said, nodding to the nurse standing next to the gurney.
A few moments later, and the pain was receding, washed away on a wave of morphine-induced light-headedness. There was a sting in his abdomen and Blair jumped, his abused stomach muscles clamping down painfully at the shock of the local.
"Take it easy, Chief," a familiar voice said from somewhere to his right and Blair turned his head to see Jim standing there, a hand reaching out to pat his leg.
Relief made his eyes close, stopping the sudden burning there from spilling over into foolish tears. "Thanks for coming," he managed to say past the lump in his throat.
"No problem," Jim replied easily.
Blair felt Jim's hand on his shoulder now and he opened his eyes to see Jim had moved and was sitting on a stool pushed up against the gurney. "How about you try closing your eyes and doing some of that meditation crap you're always feeding me?" Jim suggested, smiling.
"Yeah, right," Blair muttered, wincing as the suture needle bit through an obviously not anesthetised bit of his flesh.
"It's easy, Sandburg," Jim said, his hand rubbing up and down Blair's arm now. "Just take a deep breath in then blow it out slowly through your mouth. In and out…"
Blair flicked a glance over at him to see if Jim was yanking his chain, but his friend looked totally serious, so Blair went through the routine, surprised to find it actually worked. By the time the doctor had finished with the stitches, he was actually calm and relaxed. "Maybe you should be the guide," he said in a Sentinel-soft whisper.
"Nah, I've already got the best one around," Jim said, patting his shoulder. "Everything I know I learned from him."
"Well, Mr. Sandburg, I think it'd be a good idea to keep you here overnight for observation-"
"No!" Blair tried to wrestle himself up, only to find he was held back against the pillows by the gentle weight of Jim's hand on his shoulder.
"Relax, Chief," Jim said, "let the man finish what he was going to say."
Blair turned his head, his eyes finding Jim's, panic making his tongue stumble. "I… can't stay" he finally managed to get out.
"Why not?" Jim asked mildly. "If it's money, you don't need to worry, the department will cover it. You were injured on the job, in a manner of speaking."
Blair closed his eyes, thought about that, about the fact that he could stay here, that he didn't have to go back to sleep in his car, could spend one night here in a warm bed without having to worry about looking for somewhere else to sleep, somewhere else to live…
"Or you could come home, back to the loft," Jim went on. "I have medic training," he told the doctor. "I can keep an eye on him. You said he doesn't have a concussion…"
"The only reason I was suggesting he stay was because the officer who accompanied him said he was sleeping in his car," the doctor replied with a shrug. "If he's happy to go with you, I don't have a problem with that. Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair looked at Jim, really looked at him and saw the warmth in his eyes and the smile that said he meant every word he'd said. "Home?" he asked.
"Yeah, home, where you belong," Jim replied, tousling his hair. "We'll maybe have to go over some house rules but I think we can get by without killing each other. What do you say, Chief?"
Blair nodded, emotion making speech impossible for once. "Thanks," he finally got out. "That'd be good."
An hour later and Blair was in a wheelchair on his way out to the truck. He'd protested the ride vociferously till Jim had simply told him it was a hospital rule and to get in the chair and shut up already. Blair did. The sooner he complied, the sooner he got back to the loft… home. He kept repeating the word in his head like a mantra as Jim wheeled him out to the exit doors of the ER.
"Hey, Sandburg, how you doing?"
Blair looked around and saw Ted and Marco walking towards them. "I'm okay," he replied as they reached him. "Thanks for not arresting me and for getting me here."
"Thank you," Ted said, holding out his hand and giving Blair's a firm shake. "You stopped me from getting a knife in my back."
Marco looked at Jim nervously. "Um, Ellison, just so you know, we told him to stay in the car," he said.
Jim grinned and shook his head. "Hey, I haven't been able to get him to do that yet either," he said, shaking Marco's hand. "Damn kid thinks he's a cop."
"Not me, man." Blair shook his head.
"Yeah, well, you should think about it. You'd make a good one," Ted said.
"Thanks," Blair replied. He watched as they walked away then pushed himself up out of the chair.
"So," Jim put a hand on his shoulder and steered him toward the parking lot, "home."
"Yeah, sounds good, man, sounds really good."
"Sandburg, I'll be fine. Simon is gonna be there with me. He'll make sure I don't push my senses too hard."
Blair fixed his partner with a firm gaze. "I'm going on the stakeout with you, Jim. That's part of my job description. Simon doesn't know enough about the Sentinel stuff yet to help you if you zone or something." He held up a hand as Jim opened his mouth. "And before you say anything else, I'm fine. The doc said everything's healing up, and besides, all I'm gonna do is sit in the truck-"
"You're gonna stay there too, right?" Jim asked, frowning, making it more an order than a question.
"Sure," Blair assured him. "Hey, I'm no hero, man. You tell me to stay in the truck, that's where I'll stay."
Jim suddenly ducked down, hands over his ears, looking up at the ceiling.
"Jim? What's wrong?" Blair asked.
Jim straightened up, patted him on the back and led the way out of the loft, grabbing his keys on the way. "Nothing, Chief, just thought I saw a pig fly over."