EVOLUTION OF FRIENDSHIP part 4

Coming Home

By Annie

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel do not belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended and no money has changed hands. This story is a work of fiction intended solely for entertainment.

FEEDBACK: Annie

BETAED by Tate. Thanks, kiddo, for all the help and support you give.

ARCHIVE: No thank you.

Once again, thank you, Lyn, for introducing me to this wonderful world of Sentinel fanfiction and for the constant encouragement.

NOTES: This story is part 4 of the series, "Evolution of Friendship". It can be read as a standalone. It is not necessary to have read the other 3 parts to understand this one. It is an AU ending to "The Debt".

"Oh man, Jim, I am so sorry," Blair said as they walked into the loft and surveyed the disaster area that Jim used to call his home.

Almost the entire living room floor was covered in scraps of toilet paper, obviously torn from the roll that now sat under the television. There were crushed cookies and potato chips mixed among the paper and a large suspicious looking puddle of liquid at the bottom of the stairs.

Jim sniffed cautiously. "I thought you said he was house trained, Sandburg," Jim said, fixing his partner with a glare.

"He is, he is. He was probably just freaked after being out by himself, that's all. Just forgot all his toilet training in the excitement of being home again, man. Isn't that right, Larry?" Blair made his way over to the small ape sitting curled up on the couch. The animal chittered a welcome and patted Blair's face then returned his attention to the television.

"Looks like he found the toilet just fine, if you ask me, Chief," Jim gritted out between clenched teeth, "and secondly, this is *not* his home, or yours, for that matter, remember?"

"Yeah, I know that, Jim," Blair replied quietly. "I haven't forgotten that you were nice enough to let me and Larry stay for a week and he's trashed your house twice. I said I was sorry, man. Why don't you go upstairs and rest or take a shower or something? I'll get everything cleaned up here and then I'll take Larry back to the University."

"What about your paper?" Jim asked.

"It was almost finished anyway and Larry's behavior the past few days really only confirms my research findings. Although, the explosion the other night probably put a crimp in my results. I mean, how do we know whether Larry freaked because he's been watching too many shoot'em'ups or because he got the daylights scared out of him when my place blew up?" Blair answered thoughtfully.

"Or because he's a nasty little piece of work with a psychotic personality?" Jim jumped in.

Blair's head shot up at Jim's words. "I can't believe you just said that, Jim. Now he's got hurt feelings to contend with on top of everything else."

"You're enjoying this, Sandburg," Jim said accusingly.

"Me? No way, man. Larry, you are very bad. Jim is very angry with you," Blair said, addressing the ape firmly and wagging his finger in front of its face.

"You might want to wipe that smile off your face, if you want the monkey... ape to take you seriously, Darwin." Jim started up the stairs. "I'm gonna take a shower. Try to get this place cleaned up by the time I come out. We'll eat, seeing as we missed out on that dinner Mrs. La Croix offered us and then you're taking Larry back where he belongs."

"Sure, Jim, no problem. And I wasn't smiling, man, I swear. I'm just as shocked by Larry's behavior as you are. Right, Larry?"

The ape patted Blair's face again and popped a piece of cookie into Sandburg's mouth. "Thanks, Larry. See that, Jim? Larry's got a good heart. He was just a bit revved..."

"Sandburg! If you want to keep that animal alive you better get him out of here now! Do you know what he's done in my bed?"

"Aah, crap, Larry," Blair muttered.

"That's one word for it, Sandburg. God, the whole place stinks!" Jim yelled back.

Blair gave Larry a sorrowful look. "Why'd you have to go and spoil everything? This could've have been a good gig. Sorry, Jim," Blair called up the stairs. "Look, I'm gonna take Larry back now and then I'll come back and clean up. Don't you touch a thing, man. I'll be back real quick."

Blair picked Larry up and took him into the spare room and deposited him in his cage. He could still hear Jim cursing and tossing stuff around upstairs as he grabbed the cage and his car keys and headed out the front door.

~oOo~

Jim had the place cleaned up by the time Blair returned. When Blair realized that fact he apologised again for Larry's behavior and offered to buy pizza for dinner. Jim accepted with good grace. He knew Blair was trying to make amends and he was prepared to accept his partner's overtures at restoring the peace.

When the pizza arrived, Blair paid for it as he'd promised, but Jim didn't miss the way his partner riffled through his wallet after paying the deliveryman, as if he was counting the money he had left. Nor did he miss the sigh that accompanied the end of the exercise.

Jim wasn't Major Crime's best detective for nothing. Obviously paying for the pizza had about wiped out Blair's meager finances . Jim had no idea how much a teaching fellow earned but it wasn't much, judging by the fact that Blair had been happy to settle for living in a rat infested hell-hole right next to a drug lab, because it was cheap. Jim had seen the place. He wouldn't have paid a quarter the rent Blair was paying for it. He also knew that alternative housing wasn't cheap and probably not within Sandburg's price range unless he could find someone to share with. Well, he was currently sharing with Jim, so why not just keep the status quo. Yeah, he'd been pissed about the monkey - ape, that is - tearing up the loft yet again, and he was more than pissed about his bed but he'd thrown the bedding out and put new linens on after disinfecting the mattress with a hypo-allergenic spray. He mentally thanked himself for having bought a complete new set of sheets on a whim just the past week . Now, even *his* nose could only barely pick up the residual odor. He figured it'd get fainter day by day.

They finished the pizza and Jim announced that he wanted an early night. To his surprise, Blair agreed and headed to the small bedroom under the stairs as soon as they'd finished cleaning up.

Jim felt as if he'd fall asleep the minute his head hit the pillow but instead he found himself lying awake, mulling over what he'd do now Sandburg's week at the loft was over. He'd thought it was what he wanted, thought he'd be eagerly anticipating the end of having Blair as a guest. But oddly enough, he wasn't.

He was surprised to realize that he was actually enjoying having Blair as a roomie. Sure, the kid had a tendency to talk too much and he ate the weirdest food imaginable. But he'd obviously picked up on the right way to live with a Sentinel and kept the noise level down to an acceptable level and he was a surprisingly good cook. He was also good company. Jim had gotten to the stage that he actually felt disappointed when he arrived home and Blair wasn't there.

Yeah, it had only been a week and that week had been jam-packed with drama, leaving them little time to adjust to living in each other's pockets, but the Sentinel was beginning to think that maybe the best place for Sandburg to live was right here, at the loft.

The only problem was that he was hesitant to say that to Blair. The kid was as independent as all get out. That had been made painfully apparent the night Jim had found him at the warehouse, bruised and bleeding from being mugged. Blair hadn't done what most people would do and put in a complaint at the PD. Instead he'd attempted to patch himself up and if Jim hadn't turned up when he had, there was little doubt that he would have simply suffered through his injuries, without ever asking anyone for help.

So, suggesting to Sandburg that he stay at the loft because Jim knew how hard it was going to be to find alternative accommodation probably wouldn't work. He'd have to come up with a new angle. He thought about it for a few minutes, then slapped himself on the forehead as the answer came to him. Of course. His senses. He could only think that being a Sentinel was so new to him that he'd missed the most obvious reason to keep Blair with him.

The kid was at the loft more often than not, anyway, usually to help Jim work on his senses. All Jim had to do was point out to Blair that if they wanted to make the most efficient use of their time, it would make sense for Blair to stay at the loft. There'd be no more problems with Blair's ancient car dying on him when he came over and they could use the time available to them after work and school to finally try to get a handle on this Sentinel thing.

Of course, there was the other reason for keeping Sandburg close. It wasn't full-fledged yet, but deep inside the Sentinel's heart was a glimmering of a need to keep Sandburg safe. Not just in the way one friend looks out for another, This was something deeper, still as yet insubstantial, but no less important for all that. He didn't understand it. He doubted that even Blair would, but it was there, pulling at him, urging him to keep his partner close and safe and the instinct would not be over-ridden.

~oOo~

Blair listened wordlessly to the voice on the other end of the phone.

"Look, I'm sorry, Burg, but we didn't realize Jeff was gonna come back. He said it was cool with him moving in with his girlfriend. He had no idea her folks would freak about it, man. I really am sorry. Can't you just stay at the cop's place for another couple of weeks? Something'll open up," Joe finished.

"Yeah, it's okay," Blair said, finally finding his voice. "I can probably stay on here a little longer. Hey, if you hear about anything coming up for rent though, you let me know, okay? I don't want to wear out my welcome with Jim."

"You'll be the first to know, man. I'll see ya."

"Yeah, bye," Blair replied, hanging up the phone. Damn, now what am I gonna do?* He cast his mind about for answers and only came up with one. He'd tried everything and everywhere else. Jim would probably kill him if he knew, but there was no alternative. He wrote a note for Jim then walked into the room he'd been using and grabbed his travel tent and his already packed backpack. Casting one quick look back at the place he'd been so glad to call his home, even if just for a short while, he turned and left, making sure to lock the door behind him.

~oOo~

Jim,

Thanks for putting me and Larry up the last week. Larry's really sorry about the mess (so am I). I'll be back to get the rest of my stuff on the weekend. If you need me for anything you can get hold of me at the U. I've got somewhere to stay temporarily at least and I'm sure something else will turn up soon. Let me know how much I owe you for the hospital and stuff and I'll get it to you ASAP.

Thanks again, man.

Blair.

Jim read the note over twice, before he headed to the room Blair had been using. He could see at a glance that a lot of Blair's stuff was gone, his blankets and pillow and the travel tent that had been propped up in the corner, in its bag. Well, at least that answered one question. Wherever Blair was staying, it obviously wasn't in someone's house. He had to be camping out somewhere. The problem was going to be finding out where. The weather wasn't freezing this time of year but it was cold and damp, and if Jim knew anything about his new partner it was that he hated being cold. It was the reason he wore so many layers of shirts, when most people would be content with a shirt and a sweater.

Jim went back to the phone and picked up the notepad lying next to it. The top sheet was blank but he could see faint indentations on it from where something had been written on the page before it. He wondered whether he should try what he was thinking about doing without Sandburg around, then shrugged and placed the tips of his fingers on the paper. He concentrated on extending his sense of touch a little at a time, too elated to zone when he realized it was working. As he moved the sensitized fingertips over the etchings left behind, he grabbed a pen and a separate sheet of paper in his right hand and wrote down the name and phone number he was "reading" with his other hand. Then, positive he had the details right, he picked up the phone and called Blair's friend, Joe.

By the time Jim had finished talking with Joe, it was close to 7 PM and the night air was getting chillier by the minute. Unfortunately, Joe hadn't been much help, simply telling the detective that the room he'd promised to Blair had fallen through. Blair had sounded disappointed, but not too worried, Joe had reported, saying he could probably stay on at the cop's place for another couple of weeks.

*Then, why the hell didn't you just do that, Sandburg* Jim wondered silently as he went about making coffee. He grabbed a thermos from under the sink and poured the hot beverage in, sealing it tightly. He sat down on the couch for a while, trying to make some sort of plan for finding Blair. He could hardly put an APB out on him and it was pointless just heading out into the night. He had no real idea where Blair had gone. He just didn't know the kid well enough yet to second guess him. Or did he?

Suddenly, he understood that there was a way he could at least get a lead on where the kid might have gone. All he really had to do was think back over the relatively few weeks that they'd known each other and try to remember things Blair had told him about himself. The problem with that was that Blair talked a lot, but Jim now realized, he actually managed say a great deal while giving away very little about himself. In fact, Sandburg probably knew more about Jim, than Jim did about Sandburg. Well, he had to start somewhere, so he cast his mind back to the last week, then cursed suddenly as he remembered just why Blair had probably felt he couldn't ask Jim for more time to find another place.

The day they'd wrapped up their last case they'd come home and found Larry had returned to the loft and demolished it yet again. Jim had been pretty pissed at first and had reminded Sandburg that neither he nor Larry lived there. *Shit! I'm sorry, kid. I really didn't mean it the way it sounded. *

However, that cringe-making episode still did nothing to point Jim in the direction of his partner, so he pushed his memory further back. "Oh man, why didn't I think of that before?" Jim asked himself as he pushed himself to his feet, grabbing the thermos of coffee as he passed the kitchen bench on his way out the door. Within minutes he was in his truck and heading for Lincoln Park, a relatively large leisure area about a mile away from the loft. He'd have to use his senses once he got there. It was dark now and the park was rustic in the extreme, with profuse thick bushes and trees edging the narrow pathways. But at least now he felt optimistic. He'd find Blair and apologize and then he'd make him understand that he was wanted, and needed in Jim's home... in *their* home.

~oOo~

Jim climbed out of the truck and stood silently for a moment, centering himself. He knew what he was about to try could blow up in his face, but if he could manage to get it right, he'd not only find Blair, he'd be able to use it to bring him home. Grabbing the thermos, he closed the truck door and locked it then cautiously extended his hearing, all the while keeping his mind on what Blair had told him when they'd first started working on his senses.

If you focus too hard on one sense, it can cause you to zone out. Jim started as he heard the voice in his head. Somehow, it seemed like more than a memory, almost as if he could feel Blair standing next to him with his hand on his shoulder, grounding him.

Jim jerked, shaking his head, realizing he'd almost zoned on the sound of Blair's voice. *Dammit! Okay, Ellison, let's start again. *

You need to ground yourself with another sense before you extend one too far. Like, when I put my hand on your back or shoulder, I'm grounding you with touch, when you're focusing on sight or hearing. Got it? *Yeah, I got it, Chief. * Jim smiled as he wondered how Blair would react if he knew just how well Jim actually remembered all the tutoring sessions. Okay, Blair wasn't here to anchor him with touch, so that left smell, taste or sight. Looking around at the myriad of trees in the park, Jim decided on smell and gradually extended both his hearing and his sense of smell. Soon he could discern the woody scents and floral bouquets from the plants that surrounded him. At the same time, his ears were searching for one particular sound - a heartbeat.

He'd found out he could hear Blair's heartbeat since the day the PD had been taken over by Kincaid and his men. He hadn't mentioned it at the time, partly because he was too worried about Blair to do so and partly because he'd decided it'd make a good party trick to surprise the kid with one day. Especially, when Sandburg started winding up into one of those interminable lectures about Jim not wanting to do tests. Now he could hear more than one heartbeat coming from all around him. Concentrating carefully, still keeping his sense of smell cataloguing the odors he could pick up, he managed to discard the pulses that were too fast and likely to be those of small animals, until there were only two left that fit what he was listening for. One he was able to ignore immediately, recognising it as his own, the other was definitely Blair's and it wasn't very far away.

Pushing forward, through the dense bushes, Jim allowed himself to be drawn along by his hearing. He stumbled once and heard Sandburg call out, "Who's there? What do you want?" Jim almost grinned until he took note of the slight quaver of fear in the voice. Now, he had pinpointed his partner's exact position, he managed through sheer force of will to pull his hearing and smell back down to normal limits and concentrated on making as little noise as possible as he approached Blair's campsite.

Within three or four yards he could see a clearing through the trees. It was lit by a dim glow, some sort of lantern, Jim realized. Grateful he wouldn't have to risk pushing his sight above normal limits, feeling as if he'd already taken too many chances with his senses tonight, Jim pushed through the last of the branches in his way and stood at the edge of the campsite.

"Jim! What the... Geez, man, you about took ten years off my life. How the hell did you find me? Why..."

"Whoa, slow it down, buddy. Let me sit down and I'll answer all your questions, all right?"

Blair nodded and Jim moved over and sat down next to the smaller man. He held up a hand as Blair began to talk. "Not yet, Chief. Just give me a few minutes, okay?" Slowly, he looked Sandburg over, making sure he was physically unharmed.

Blair didn't look too bad, considering how cold he must have been. But his eyes looked huge in his pale face, his hair tangled and wild, as if he'd just crawled out of bed. Peering through the flaps of the tent and spotting the sleeping bag, its side unzipped, Jim figured that he probably had. The kid was wearing layers as usual but, from the bulkiness of his body, it looked as though there were at least another two added to the normal amount he wore. Dark fingerless mittens covered both hands, but from what Jim could see of Blair’s fingers they looked slightly blue-tinged and he reached out and took the chilled hands in his own, massaging them briskly.

Blair didn't try to remove them but eventually curiosity got the better of him as he noticed the Thermos at Jim's side. "Um, dare I hope that's hot coffee in there, man?"

"Oh right, yeah. Forgot I had it. Here, I'll pour you a cup." Jim suited actions to words and smiled softly as he noticed the way Blair gulped eagerly at the hot liquid.

"So, how did you know where to find me, Jim?" Blair asked as he finished his drink.

"I remembered that day we were doing tests here, a week or so ago, and you said, if it wasn't a public park it'd be a great place to camp out," Jim replied easily.

"Oh. You remembered that?"

Jim nodded and waited for the next question.

"Why?"

"Because I need you around, Sandburg. I can't do this sentinel thing on my own."

"I wasn't going to leave you to handle it alone, Jim. I just knew the week was up. Hell, I was lucky you let me stay as long as you did after what Larry did..." Blair began.

"Look, Chief, I said some stuff I didn't mean that day, all right? That night, after you got back, I'd already decided to ask you if you wanted to stay on at the loft but then I had to go into work early and by the time I got back, you'd already left," Jim said.

"Why would you want that, man? You've lived alone a while now. I mean, I'm messy and I talk too much and I'm a lot of bother to have around..." Blair asked tentatively.

Jim grinned. "Chief, you're only partly right. You are messy and you do tend to talk a lot, but the one thing you're not is a bother to me. This way, I don't have to go hunting you down when I need your help on a case or something to do with my senses." Jim stopped suddenly. That had sounded pretty damn self-serving once it was out of his mouth, although Blair was nodding slowly as if he agreed.

Jim sighed. He guessed it was time to really lay his cards on the table. "Look, I was going to ask you to stay because yes, I think it'd be more efficient that way. But that's not the main reason." He glanced down, feeling his cheeks heat slightly. He'd never been real good at talking about his feelings, but if he was going to have Sandburg in his life, he figured he'd have to get over that real quick. He looked up and gazed straight into Blair's eyes. "The loft has been more of a home to me, just in the past week than it's ever been in all the time I've lived there, Blair. I liked having you there. I'd really like it if you'd come home with me, now. What do you want, buddy? Wanna come home?"

Home. Jim's keen vision didn't miss the telltale shine of tears in the younger man's eyes at the sound of the word. Voicelessly, Blair inclined his head in agreement and Jim reached out and pulled him into a hug. Blair sighed as he rested his head against Jim's broad chest. "Thanks, Jim. I'd like to come back..." He swallowed hard as he pushed himself away from the sentinel and looked into the blue eyes watching him carefully. "I'd like to go back home, " he said firmly.

"Good," Jim answered, smiling. "Then let's get this stuff packed up before we get arrested for vagrancy or something. You're not gonna make a habit of this, are you Sandburg? I mean, first I find you asleep on my landing and now camped out in a public park..." Jim was hinting back to the day after they'd wound up the Switchman case, when he'd come home late from work to find his new partner fast asleep on the floor outside his front door.

"No way, man," Blair said with a grin, pushing himself up and busying himself packing up his gear. "I mean this is a nice place to stay, but I wouldn't want to live here."

Thirty minutes later, they were in the truck heading for the loft.

"So, Jim, you gonna tell me how you tracked me in the park at night?" Blair asked in a deceptively casual voice.

"Hey, I was in Covert Ops. I can track people," Jim replied, equally as casual.

"So, you didn't use your senses, right?" Blair pushed.

"Hmm... I guess I did, a little," Jim said, sneaking a quick look at the anthropologist.

"What? Jim, are you crazy? You could have zoned out there, alone, without..." He stopped. "How did you manage...?" Suddenly a broad grin stretched across his face. "So you have been listening to the lectures? Man, this is great. Soon as we get back I want you to tell me everything you did. I want to write it all down before you forget some of it. No, no, wait, I'll tape it. That way, you can refer back to it later if you have problems when you need to do it again, once you don't need me around any more."

Jim pulled into a parking spot in front of the loft and turned to face his friend. "Not going to happen, Chief. From now on, there will never be a time I don't need you, got that? This is for the long haul, buddy? You gonna be okay with that?"

Blair's eyes were shining as they met his. "More than okay, Jim."

"Good. Let's go home, partner."

The End

May 8th 2004.