Evolution Of Friendship15

The Kindness Of Friends

By Annie

EMAIL: Annie

The soft beep of the alarm on my watch woke me. I've grown accustomed to waking up this early anyway and would probably wake up without it. It was 5AM. Groaning, I pushed myself up and sat on the side of the bed, leaning forward for a few minutes to get my bearings. Only another week of this, and then I could sleep for a week… or at least for as long as Jim would let me.

I glanced up at the loft bedroom on my way to the bathroom, relieved to see Jim was still asleep. Just as well, I thought, as I turned on the shower and stepped gratefully under the spray. Jim wouldn't be happy if he knew just how little sleep I was getting at the moment. It was kinda nice the way Jim worried about me, those Blessed Protector instincts coming to the fore, except I sometimes couldn't help wondering if it was more that Jim was worried that I'd fall down on the job of being his guide and backup than because he was worried about me personally. Deciding that sounded more than a little unfair to Jim, I lathered up the sponge and soaped myself down with a little more force than necessary, wincing as the sponge skidded across the still tender bruises on my chest caused by Zeller's bullets. I shivered a little beneath the warm spray as I thought just how close I came to never feeling pain again… never feeling anything again. If Jim hadn't insisted I wear a vest…

Deciding a little introspection goes a long way this hour of the morning, I turned off the shower, dried myself off and headed back to my room to get dressed.

By the time I let myself out of the loft ten minutes later, a heel of buttered bread in my hand as a makeshift breakfast, dawn was beginning to light Cascade's skyline and I was almost in a fit state to appreciate its beauty.

My car started without a problem for once and I pulled out onto the virtually deserted street and headed for my first stop of the day, Sal's Deli on Palmer Street.

"Hey, Sal," I called as I walked through the door, the bell above my head jingling raucously.

"Blair, I didn't think you'd make it," Sal said, a wide grin creasing his Sicilian features.

"I said I'd be here," I replied.

"I know, but I also know you're a busy guy, working at the University and with Detective Ellison.' He reached out and clapped a meaty hand on my shoulder. "I appreciate you doing this."

"It's no biggie, Sal. Elisa helped me out a lot when I first started at the University, gave me free food, let me sleep on the couch when I had nowhere to stay…"

Sal's eyes teared over and he swiped at them one-handed. "My Elisa thought of you as a son," he said.

I swallowed hard against the emotion the memories brought forth and tried on a smile for size. "So… you better get going before all the good produce is gone," I said.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," he assured me as he headed for the door. "Next week, Sal Junior will be back and he can watch the store while I go to the market."

"Great, it'll be good to see him," I said. I watched him leave then started stocking the shelves ready for opening time.

I'd never really realized just how hard Sal worked till I started helping him out a few days ago. By the time he got back three hours later, after I lugged a few dozen boxes through from the storeroom and climbed up and down a ladder a couple of dozen times, I had a new appreciation for the local grocery storekeeper. Not that I didn't appreciate Sal before. He and Elisa and their son had been like a second family to me when I'd come to Cascade as a scared, lonely 16-year-old ten years before. Then Elisa had died a month ago, just after their son Sal had gone to Europe, and Sal had been trying to run the store on his own. When I found out, I offered to watch the store for him, do the restocking and a few other odd jobs every morning while Sal went to the market. It was little enough recompense for what they'd done for me.

Another half hour and a cup of great coffee behind me and I was on my way to my next stop of the day.

~oOo~

"Look who's here, sweetie," Mrs. O'Leary called back into her apartment as she opened the door to my knock. "Blair, darling, how are you? You look thin. Are you eating?"

"I'm eating fine," I replied as I let myself be pulled down into a hug. "Jim's too much of a mother hen to let me get away with that." I winced as my bruised ribs protested the embrace and Mrs. O'Leary pulled away, a frown on her face. "What's wrong?" she asked, worry tingeing her voice.

"I'm fine," I said, bending down gingerly to pat the small Maltese Terrier bouncing around our feet, "just some bruised ribs. Hey, Molly."

The little dog planted a wet lick on my face and jumped up to place her front paws on my knee.

"Molly, behave yourself. Blair's not feeling well." She gave me a searching look. "I suppose this happened when you were doing police work," she said, the disapproval in her voice reminding so much of my mom's that it's all I could do not to laugh out loud.

"I'm fine," I said again. "I was helping Jim on a case and I got shot-" Her eyes widened and her mouth opened but before she could say any more, I jumped in. "I was wearing a vest. It's no biggie."

"Maybe Molly could miss her walk today," she said.

"No way. I look forward to it," I said honestly. It's true, I do. It's a time of my day when I can just wander where Molly leads me, when we can both smell the roses, though Molly smells some pretty awful other stuff too, and I can switch off for a half-hour and be just some guy walking a dog.

"Are you sure, Blair?" Mrs. O'Leary asked though she was already reaching up to the hook where she kept Molly's lead. "You're such a dear boy to do this for us," she added as she snapped the lead onto Molly's collar and handed the other end to me.

"Mrs. O'Leary, you've been the grandmother I never had," I told her sincerely. Remember when I had the flu and you brought chicken soup to the loft every day till I was better?"

"Ack, it was nothing," she replied, brushing away the remembrance with a wave of her hand. "That's what neighbors do."

"And when your neighbor can't walk her dog because her arthritis is too bad, this is what neighbors do," I said, waggling the end of the lead in my hand. "Come on, Molly, let's hit the trail."

Molly raced out the door ahead of me and I wrapped a protective arm around my ribs as I ran to keep up.

We finally slowed to walk when we reached the park and I let Molly stop and sniff wherever her nose drew her. It gave me time to reflect on what had happened over the past week. I had to admit I'd been attracted to Amber and I felt a little guilty that I'd reacted the way I had when I realized she was a prostitute. My mom had done her best to instill in me that you shouldn't judge people and I'd always thought I'd taken that on board pretty well. Yet, somehow the idea of having a relationship with someone who used sex not as a way of showing love but as a way of paying her school tuition bothered me more than I was prepared to admit. It was a moot point anyway. Amber had gone home to hopefully achieve her dream of becoming a doctor after putting her other 'career' in mothballs.

Sudden barking brought my attention back to the present and I looked up to see Molly being circled by a large unleashed Doberman. "Hey!" I yelled at a man who seemed to be the dog's owner. "Can you call your dog and leash it, please?" I indicated the sign that said dogs were to be leashed at all times.

"It's a free country, buddy," the man replied but he called out, "hey, Satan, get over here!"

I watched as the Doberman simply inched closer to Molly, its barking now becoming menacing growls.

I yanked on Molly's lead, trying to get her closer to me in the hope I could scoop her up away from Satan's jaws but she was panicked now and she was jumping around so frantically, it was all I could do to keep hold of the leash. My ribs were reminding me that it hadn't been all that long ago that I'd been shot but I didn't dare release my hold on the lead so instead of the mountain coming to Mohammed, I decided I'd have to go to Molly.

Watching the Doberman warily as its owner continued to call its name, I stepped between it and Molly… and promptly found myself flat on my back with a jawful of snarling, snapping Doberman teeth in my face. Satan's owner sounded panicked now and I didn't blame him. My own heart was racing triple time as I let go of Molly's leash, hoping she wouldn't run too far off in her fear, so I could get both hands up to try to protect my face. I screamed in pain as the teeth bit into my left hand. I managed to bend my knee and jerked it as hard as I could into the dog's belly. That seemed to give him pause and the dog's owner chose that moment to grab it by its collar and haul it bodily off of me. There was a sickening sensation of feeling its teeth pull free of my lacerated flesh and then Satan was gone and I rolled onto my side, cradling my injured hand against my chest. A wet nose nuzzled my cheek and I looked up to see Molly in front of me, shaking with fear as she virtually tried to climb into my skin. I held her close to me as I sat up and glared at the Doberman's owner.

"You shouldn't have got between them," he was babbling. "Satan saw you as a threat-"

I climbed to my feet, blood from hand dripping to pool on the ground and stain Molly's white fur. "He saw me as something that was between him and his prey," I ground out.

Satan was still snarling, twisting against the man's hold on his collar and I wanted to get myself and Molly away before the man lost control of him again. "If I see the dog off a leash again in this park," I said, "I'll call Animal Control." Then I turned and headed back to 852.

I handed a still trembling Molly over to a horrified Mrs. O'Leary and advising her to have the dog checked out by a vet, and after assuring her that, "No, I didn't need a doctor or to go the hospital" and "Yes, we had a good first aid kit in the loft and after all, Jim had medic training in the Army" I headed wearily upstairs, my hand now wrapped in one of Mrs. O'Leary's clean dishcloths.

Just as I feared, Jim was up and still home when I walked inside and he glanced over at me from where he stood in front of the stove. The rapid change in his expression from curiosity to concern would have been funny if my hand wasn't throbbing so badly and if I'd been able to find anything vaguely funny about the situation.

He was in front of me in seconds, one hand grabbing my injured arm and unwrapping the dishcloth with the other. "Dog bite?" he asked, peering closely at the wounds.

"Ow, yeah, some big mother called Satan. It tried to eat Molly and when I got between it and its course du jour, it tried to rip my throat out." I was being steered over to the dining room table and pushed down onto a chair as we spoke. I sighed as Jim went for the first aid kit and winced as I saw him pull out the bottle of antiseptic. I saw pain in my future and I wasn't looking forward to it.

Jim sat down kitty-corner to me with a bowl of steaming water and the kit. "Suck it up, Chief," he said, patting my shoulder consolingly. "If you're tough enough to take on mad dogs, you're tough enough to take on the ministering of a Blessed Protector with a first aid kit."

I shot him a grin through clenched teeth then spent the next ten minutes trying not to levitate off my chair as he prodded and probed, wiped and swiped then bandaged my hand firmly in gauze and padding.

"I'm not sure about not taking you to the hospital-"

"My tetanus is up to date," I interrupted him quickly.

He shook his head. "Dog bites can get infected easily. You need antibiotics-"

"I'll keep an eye on it," I assured him. "If it starts looking inflamed, I'll go the clinic on campus."

"All right." He nodded agreement and packed up the detritus from the kit. "How's Molly?" he asked as he tipped the water down the sink.

"Shaky but unhurt," I told him as I walk over to my room to grab clean clothes for the day.

"Stray dog?" he asked and when I said no, he asked if I'd gotten the owner's details, which I hadn't, of course.

"Sorry," I said as I headed for the bathroom. "I was kinda preoccupied at the time."

"Your ribs okay?" he asked, walking up to me and placing a gentle finger on the worst of the leftover bruises.

"Yeah, a little tender still but not too bad. I'm fine. Look, unless you want to follow me in and wash my back or something, I really need to take my shower and get the U. I've got a class at 9."

"Sorry, Chief, you know I love ya, but not that much. Go. Wait!" He headed back to the kitchen and returned with a plastic bag, which he tied over my hand. "Try not to get the bandage wet. You sure you should be going in?"

"Don't have a choice, Jim. I'm covering Dave Blencoe's class for him. He covered for me last week when this happened." I gestured at the bruises.

"Okay. Don't overdo things. I'm going to be late tonight. I'll pick up some takeout on the way home, okay?" he said.

"Great," I replied. "I won't be home till around 9 anyway. Got some stuff I need to do after classes."

"All right, I'll see you then." Jim patted my back and gave me a gentle shove into the bathroom.

~oOo~

By the time my classes were over for the day I was beginning to wish I'd taken Jim up on his advice to go to the ER. My hand throbbed and my ribs were aching anew with the assault Satan had made on them that morning. I swallowed three Tylenol Extra Strength I got from Jo in the office with a bottle of apple juice, and followed them with two bites of a vending machine-dry sandwich for lunch. My stomach roiled miserably in complaint after the two bites so I tossed the rest in the bin and went onto my next class… and the one after that… and the one after that. By the time 3PM rolled around, each class had rolled immutably into one and I knew I wouldn't remember a word that had been said later. Sighing, I cadged a copy of Jeff Harmer's notes on the way out of the last lecture room and promised him a free tutorial on Australian Aboriginal corroborees in return.

I felt like crap by the time I made it to my office and gave momentary thought to skipping my office hours till I saw Donna Hampstead standing outside my door, crying as if her heart would break. I gave her a one-handed hug and took her into my office, sitting her down while I made her a cup of chamomile tea and then listened to the reason for the tears.

The long and short of it was that Donna thought she should pull out of the course because she'd received an F on her last paper. I looked the paper over and had to agree with her Professor's judgment. It was a pretty piss-poor effort for someone I knew was intelligent and interested in the subject, and who had received pretty much straight As up to now.

A little judicial Q&A, for which I gave thanks for Jim's tutelage over the past year or so, revealed that her mom was terminally ill and Donna had been pretty much running the house and taking care of her two younger siblings full time. I handed her a box of tissues while I put in a call to her Professor and managed to get him to agree to let her redo the paper after I'd organized a tutor for her. Then I arranged counseling sessions and made another call to Social Services about getting some practical help for the whole family. By the time she left my office, I was exhausted but Donna was smiling and just seeing that made it all worthwhile.

It was times like these, I thought, as I grabbed my backpack and headed for the door, that I knew why teaching was so important to me, why I never wanted to do anything else. I was about to lock up when the phone rang. Sighing, I grabbed it and muttered a curse as a sharp pain jabbed through my injured hand.

"Chief? You okay?" Jim sounded concerned and I hurried to reassure him. "Yeah, fine, just not used to having only one hand to use."

I dropped my backpack to the floor so I could swap hands. "What's up, man? I was just finishing up for the day."

"You got time to give some input on a case?" Jim asked.

"Um, now?" I looked at the wall clock. I was supposed to be at Jen's in an hour…

"About 6," Jim said. "There's a case Simon thinks you might have an interest in."

"Really? He said that?" I was seriously impressed though I tried not to show it too much.

"Yeah, sure he did. So… Can you make it?"

"Sure, I'll be there."

"You sure you're up for it? How's the hand and the ribs?" Jim sounded worried again but no way was I going to tell him my hand was throbbing like a mother and my ribs still ached after being used as Satan's pounce toy.

"Jim, I'm fine. Tell you what, you can buy me pizza on the way home, okay? And then," I smothered a yawn with my hand, "I'm going to make like Rip Van Winkle when we get home."

"Okay, see you at 6. Oh, and Chief, just come straight to Simon's office. I'll see you there."

Jim hung up and I headed out for my penultimate call of the day.

~oOo~

There's a special kind of hell for those stupid to volunteer to look after three-year-old twins when you've never had a kid of your own, I decided as I looked around Jen's apartment ten minutes before she was due home.

There were so many toys covering the floor that the floor couldn't even be seen. Anybody entering the apartment would have thought its occupants moved about by dint of hopping from one piece of play gear to the next. The kitchen wasn't much better. David had decided he didn't want chocolate milk after all and had thrown it at me, leaving an impressive Blair-shaped silhouette on the wall after I'd managed to duck. Patrick had obviously thought that was a trick worth emulating but had then thrown a massive tantrum when he realized that meant his cup was empty. In his three-year-old fury he knocked over a chair, which careened into the table and sent all the plates and cutlery tumbling to the floor. I'd swept up most of the broken bits one-handed once I'd got the little hellions into bed to watch videos till their mom got home but I was despairing of getting the rest of the cleaning up finished in time. Sure enough, just as I grabbed a dishrag and began to wipe the mess of milk from the wall, I heard Jen come in the door.

"Hey, Blair, you don't have to clean up as well," she said cheerfully, throwing her bag haphazardly into a corner.

"Look, I'm really sorry about the mess-"

"Mess?" Jen looked puzzled then shrugged. "You're washing my walls and you're apologizing?"

I shrugged and decided not to explain further. I looked at the clock on the microwave. I had to move if I was going to get to the PD on time.

Jen kissed me on the cheek at the door. "Thanks so much for looking after the bratlings while I went to the doctor," she said. "I'll be so glad when Rick gets home next week." She narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice and said, "We're pregnant again."

"Wow, that's great, Jen." I hugged her and then closed the door behind me quickly before she decided to book me for babysitting in advance.

~oOo~

The bullpen was deserted when I got there which surprised me. I don't think I'd ever seen this hub of activity that quiet before. I slung my backpack on the chair I used next to Jim's desk, giving serious thought to simply sinking down on the chair myself and putting my head down for a nap. My hand throbbed distantly, the pulse of it keeping time with my heartbeat and I made a mental note to take some pain meds as soon as the meeting with the Captain was over. Speaking of which…

I walked across the pen and knocked on the door. Getting no response but seeing light behind the glass, I hesitantly turned the knob and pushed it open. A clamoring chorus of "Surprise!" met me as I did and I stumbled backwards, saved from falling on my ass and making a complete fool of myself by a pair of hands that grabbed me firmly by the elbows and held me in place. I felt my mouth drop open in shock as I saw before me the entire contingent of Major Crime, up to and including Simon Banks, crowded into the office, beers in hand.

"What's going on?" I turned my head, looking for Jim and found him behind me, his hands still clasping my arms. Should've known he'd be the one to catch me.

"Happy Birthday, Chief," he said, grinning broadly as Joel stepped forward and shoved a beer into my hand. "Happy birthday, Blair," Joel said, smiling and clapping me on the shoulder.

"Wow." It was all I think of to say but fortunately, Simon, seeing my loss for words, stepped forward and raised his beer bottle in a toast.

"Sandburg," he said, "you've been a thorn in my side from the first day I met you. You have also shown courage under fire, from the Iceman, no less. For that, I salute you." He tipped his bottle towards me and I tipped mine back. "Happy birthday, kid," he added gruffly. "Well, let's move this party back to Ellison's place," he told the assembled mob. "No way we're partying here."

I let Jim usher me out of the office and out to pick up my backpack.

"You okay?" Jim asked as I winced picking it up.

"I'm fine. Stop being such a mother hen," I retorted, but I couldn't help the warm glow that burned within me at his words.

"Okay," he agreed amiably, herding me to the elevator. "No more mother-henning… as long as you stay out of trouble."

I grinned up at him as I pushed the button. "No promises, Jim, but I'm doing my best."

He snorted at that then shoved me into the car when it came and followed me in, taking my backpack from me as he entered. "You sure you're up for this?" he murmured into my ear, indicating the happy group of detectives who were riding with us.

I nodded, the pain in my hand almost a thing of the past now, the ache of my ribs a mere memory, eclipsed by the kindness of these men who had so recently been strangers to me. I read somewhere once that the kindness of friends can heal almost all hurts. Whoever said that was right, I thought. "Yeah, I'm good," I said. "Thanks, Jim."

The End