~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

Cleaning up the Mess

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

Jim walked through the door first, having already done an auditory scan to make sure it was safe. Even though Chapel had been taken away in handcuffs, Jim still felt a little on edge. Having one's home invaded by a psycho could do that to a man.

He sighed as his eyes took in the damage. It was late, and he was too damn tired to worry about it now. Maybe he should just find a hotel for the night. He certainly couldn't sleep in his own bed, and the living room was in a shambles. Two overturned lamps lay broken on the floor, and several yellow balls of fruit littered the living room. On top of all that, soft, gray feathers rested like snow over the floor and furniture.

*God, what a mess.* He tossed his keys in the basket and slid out of his jacket, hanging it on the first hook. Blair shuffled after him, his shoulders hunched and his face lined with fatigue. Jim frowned, moving to the couch and watching silently as Blair hung his jacket on the last hook. Sandburg had seemed okay on the way to dinner, chatting incessantly with Cassie about trivial things. Maybe that had just been nerves. By the time they'd made it to the restaurant, however, Blair had grown more quiet. When their food arrived, he'd eaten in almost complete silence, apparently content to let Cassie carry the conversation for the three of them.

By the end of the meal, Blair had begun to look like a puppy who'd just been kicked and left out in the rain. He'd kept throwing small, furtive glances Jim's way, his eyes growing more and more pained as the night wore on.

Guilt gnawed at Jim. Maybe Blair had been hurt more than he'd let on. Instead of suggesting dinner, Jim probably should have suggested the hospital. Perhaps Blair had been hurting and just didn't want to say anything. Why Sandburg would keep something like that a secret, Jim didn't know, but he'd long since given up trying to understand the kid.

Blair kicked the door closed and shot another one of his pained, almost-guilty-looking glances Jim's way. When he saw Jim studying him, he managed a shaky smile. "Hey, man. Wanna go take a shower, or something? I'll straighten up in here."

Jim leaned against the side of the couch and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "You okay, Chief? No bullshitting. Do you need to go get checked out? Anything cracked or bruised or hurting?"

Blair shook his head quickly. "No. I'm fine. All he did was tie me to the chair."

Jim's eyes narrowed. "You sure?'

"Yep. It's my body. I think I would know if he hurt it." Blair waved toward the hall. "Now, I know you had a pretty grueling fight with him and got all sweaty and icky and stuff. You can use a shower, believe me. So why don't you go take one, and then we can head to bed?"

Jim raised his eyebrows, his lips twitching. "Are you saying I smell bad?"

Blair grinned, and, for a moment, his eyes lit up. "Hey, you're the one with the super sense of smell. You tell me."

Jim pushed off the couch and headed for the bathroom, gently tapping his partner on the head as he passed. "Funny, Junior. See you in ten. You think you can do me a favor and get me some covers out of the closet? My bed's kind of trashed."

Blair nodded, his smile fading. "Yeah, sure. Now, go on. Git."

"Thanks."

Jim walked into the bathroom and slipped out of his clothes, turning the water on and waiting until it grew hot enough to ease his aching muscles. He stepped carefully into the tub and closed the shower curtain, letting the firm spray pound away the tension between his shoulder blades.

He took a little longer in the shower than he'd planned, but the hot water just felt so good on his neck, back, and shoulders that he didn't want to get out. He soaped up and washed himself twice, then shampooed, even using some of Blair's funny-smelling conditioner on his hair. Of course, with his near buzz-cut, he only needed about a drop of the stuff to work up a lather.

Finally, he turned off the water, feeling cleaner than he had in a very long time. He stepped out of the shower and quickly dried off, then wrapped the towel around his waist and picked his clothes up from the floor.

Shuffling into the living room, he headed toward his stairs....

Then stopped and turned slowly toward the living room. *How on Earth...?" It was nearly spotless. The broken lamps, scattered fruit, and wispy feathers were gone.

"Blair?"

How the hell had the kid managed to work so *fast?* He looked to the stairs, his jaw dropping open when he saw his bureau situated out of the way beneath the banister. His eyes traveled up to the foot of the bed, but he couldn't see into his room.

"Sandburg? Where are you?"

"Uh... Up here. Be down in a minute!"

His brow furrowing with curiosity, Jim moved to the foot of the stairs and trudged slowly upward. When he got to the top, he saw Blair standing on the far side of the bed, a broom in his hand as he swept at something on the floor. Sandburg's head hung low, his curls draping forward to hide his face, and his shoulders slunched forward as he worked.

Jim looked around, his eyebrows rising in awe. Most of the feathers that had coated the room were now gone, with only a few stragglers remaining in some of the crevices and clinging to his bed.

"Chief?"

Blair flinched, his head snapping up. "Uh. Oh, hi, Jim. Don't worry, I'll be done here in a little bit."

Jim frowned and moved forward, his gaze dropping to the floor. A pan held a generous pile of feathers and dust -- dust from where the bullets had pierced the floorboards, Jim figured.

He looked back up at the young man. "What are you doing, Sandburg? This stuff can wait until tomorrow."

Blair swallowed and dropped his head, resuming his methodical sweeping, gathering the stray feathers and thick dust into a neat pile in front of the already-full dustpan. "It's okay. I'm kind of ancy, anyway. I just thought this would be a good way to work off my energy."

Jim pursed his lips, studying his friend. Blair looked dejected... depressed, even. Slowly, Jim moved to stand next to his partner. "What's wrong, Chief?" He asked the question as gently as possible, hoping his tone would make Blair feel comfortable opening up to him.

Blair stopped sweeping, but he didn't look up. "N-Nothing." His voice trembled slightly.

"Bullshit. C'mon, Blair. I won't bite you, I promise." He smiled even though the expression was lost on the young man.

Blair swallowed hard. "It's... uh..." He took a deep breath and raised his head to look at Jim, his eyes wide. "I'm sorry, okay? I, uh, I think maybe it would be better if I didn't hang out with you anymore."

Jim nearly staggered back. He thought he'd been prepared for just about anything Blair could say... but he hadn't expected *that.* "What? What are you talking about? I mean, I know this got pretty wild tonight, Chief. You were scared..."

"It's not that." Blair's gaze dropped back to the floor, and, with a sigh, he sank to the bed. "It's not *me* I'm worried about. It's you."

Jim was becoming thoroughly confused. He scrubbed a hand over his face and sat next to Blair. "Help me out here, Chief. I don't understand."

Sandburg took a slow, deep breath. "You remember when I tipped Lash off at the church?"

"Yeah," Jim replied somewhat hesitantly. He thought he knew where this conversation might be heading.

"I promised you something like that would never happen again." Blair leaned forward, dropping his head and clasping his fingers behind his neck. "I did it again tonight. Only, this time, instead of Chapel getting away, he almost killed you."

Jim felt a slow warmth rise in his chest. Against his will, a smile touched his lips, threatening to turn into a grin, but he held it back. It wouldn't be good for him to look amused.

But he *was* amused. His eyes were even tingling. He struggled to school his expression, grateful that Blair wasn't looking at him. When he thought he'd succeeded, he nudged the young man with his elbow. "Sandburg?"

"Huh?" Blair seemed to curl further into himself.

"Saaaaandburg."

"What?" This time Blair looked up at him. His eyes widened and he pulled back a fraction. "Why are you smiling? You think this is funny?"

*Damn.* Jim cleared his throat. "No, I --" The smile escaped again. He struggled to control it, but lost the battle. "I'm sorry, Chief. It's just that--" The smile erupted into a grin. Then a laugh.

Blair's eyes grew hard. "What the hell is so funny, man? I almost got you *killed* tonight. Swiss cheese! You could have been shot full of holes all because I *looked.*" His voice cracked, and he glanced away.

Jim's grin dropped. Feeling a bit more contrite, he shifted closer to his friend. "Chief, come here." He wrapped his arm around Blair's shoulders and pulled him into a quick, firm embrace. The chuckles rose again, and this time he didn't try to stop them.

Blair tensed in the hold, but Jim simply laughed and patted the young man's knee. "Stop being so damn melodramatic, Junior. You looked up. Big deal. So did Cassie. Unfortunately, I don't think she has any plans of quitting over it. Cascade wouldn't be so lucky."

Blair let out a laugh, but caught it quickly and resumed his sulking posture. "That's mean, Jim. She's not that bad."

Jim shrugged. "It's all perspective, I guess. But, as I was saying, you're making things out to be bigger than they are. You looked up, yeah. Next time you won't. It's called making mistakes and learning from them. Welcome to the human race." He patted Blair firmly on the back, eliciting a muffled *oomph* from the kid, then let his arm drop to the bed. "And as for you getting me killed. I was in the army, Chief, and there were bigger and better idiots than you that I managed to survive, so don't flatter yourself. Now, go downstairs, get in your PJ's, and go to sleep. We've got a shitload of paperwork to do tomorrow morning thanks to this little adventure."

Blair just stared at him for several long seconds, his jaw tight and and his eyes narrow. But then his lips twitched ever-so-slightly, and the edges of his eyes began to crinkle. Finally, a smile escaped. "Jerk."

He rose to his feet and brushed some of the dust from his pants. Grabbing a small fist full of feathers from the battered comforter, he turned, his lips set in a firm, hard line, raised his fist, and blew the goose-down marauders into Jim's face.

Jim had expected it, so he sat stoically, his face expressionless as the feathers cascaded over his shoulders and floated toward the bed and floor. "Goodnight, Sandburg."

"Goodnight, Ellison." Blair grabbed onto the banister and descended toward the living room. His indignant voice floated up staircase. "And tonight I think I'll sleep in the buff, thank you!"

~~~~~~

The End!