h/c and angst on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest:

hurt level: 3
comfort level: 4
angst level: 5


Strangers in the Night

His head hurt. His stomach hurt. His leg hurt. God, and he was *cold.* He swallowed hard, his dry mouth yearning for water. Just a little bit of water. What harm could come from a sip of water?

The fluorescent lights above cast a cold, sterile atmosphere to the hospital ER. It was a busy night, and the ER was understaffed and overcrowded. Blair had been placed on a gurney and shoved against a wall. He wasn't critical, so they'd stitched and bandaged the stab wound in his leg and told him his other injuries could wait.

He hurt, but the pain had faded to a dull ache -- except in his leg where it throbbed. He shivered, pulling the thin, white blanket up to his chin. A young blonde nurse approached, her gaze straight ahead, and he swallowed to wet his throat.

"Excuse me, can I have a glass of ---"

She hurried past without so much as a glance in his direction. He followed her with his eyes until she rounded the corner. An oval mirror on the far side of the room let him see around the corner, and he looked at the reflection. The nurse stood with a cluster of medical personnel around a stretcher. Blotches of red peeked through the mass of bodies. Blood, it looked like -- lots of it.

The person on the gurney exploded, screaming. His voice was loud and deep, male. The staff jumped into action, grabbing him and pushing him back on the stretcher, giving Blair a full view of the man. He'd been shot in the chest, blood pumping out on the table and the floor and even the doctors, but he was still struggling, his face twisted with rage. He had to be high on something, because any normal person would be laying weakly on death's door with that kind of wound. But this guy -- he was angry. He was shouting, screaming curses in spanish at the people holding him down, but the anger didn't reach his eyes. There, Blair saw helplessness and fear.

Blair swallowed hard and looked away from the mirror and away from the memories suddenly evoked. Being held down. Feeling afraid and helpless. Screaming at the top of his lungs in a dentist's chair.

Man, it was *cold.* He just wanted to go home. Why couldn't he just go home? His injuries weren't life-threatening. Even the doctors had said so. A concussion. A cut in his leg. A few bruises on his abdomen. Jim could patch him up at home -- where it was nice and warm and quiet.

Jim.

He closed his eyes, blocking out the harsh fluorescent lights. *Jim, please come soon.* He'd called Jim, spoken with him, told him about the mugging. It was his own fault for getting hurt. Stupid. He'd willingly handed over his wallet. No problem. But then the guy patted him down and tried to take the swiss army knife with the case Jim had given him for Christmas last year. The first Christmas after the disaster with Alex.

But it was just a stupid case and a stupid knife. Not worth his life. Back at the fountain, he'd learned what things were *really* important, and material goods just weren't among them.

The man's screams died, and the silence made Blair more aware of the now-pounding pain in his head. Footsteps squeaked on the tile floor and then stopped as a shadow fell over his face. He opened his eyes to see a pair of brown ones peering down at him.

"Excuse me? You listed Jim Ellison as an emergency contact?"

Blair nodded, then regretted it when the pain in his head intensified. "Uh.. yeah." His dry throat protested the words.

"Well, we've tried his home and office number and left a message. There's a cell phone number listed, but we can't make out one of the digits. Do you know the number?"

Blair furrowed his brow, staring at the pretty, young nurse and trying to make sense of her words. Why was she trying to contact Jim when he'd already called Jim? Hadn't he? He remembered a conversation. He was laying on the gurney here and talking to Jim on the cell phone. Jim promised to come right away.

He looked down and felt along the bed for the cell phone, but came away empty-handed.

"Sir? Did you understand me?"

Blair looked back up at her. "Did I have a cell phone with me?"

She shook her head. "You were mugged, sir. You didn't have anything on you but your jeans and shirt. He even took your shoes and jacket."

"Oh." Blair swallowed again. "Can I have some water?"

She smiled kindly at him. "In a little bit. I'll see what the doctor has to say. Now, do you know Jim Ellison's cell phone number?"

"Yeah... it's 243..." Or was it 234? And then what? 243 what? 243-852? Wait. That was six numbers. Maybe it was 1852. Or was that his address?

"That's okay, Mr. Sandburg. We'll figure it out. There's only 3 numbers it looks like it could be."

"Can I have some water, please?"

She patted him on the elbow. "In a little bit." Then she turned and walked away.

God, his mouth was so dry, and he was cold, and his head hurt. Then there was the throbbing in his right leg. Another scream shot through his skull -- a woman in grief, wailing as though she were being ripped apart. She sounded like she needed help. Blair struggled to sit up. The room spun briefly, and he leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and taking slow, deep breaths until, finally, he figured it was safe to open his eyes again.

The double doors to the ER opened, and two blue-clad men pushed a stretcher inside, almost running. A small figure on the bed lay crying, yelling hysterically for her mother. There was blood all over her face and neck. Before the double doors completed their swing closed, they exploded inward to admit a plump Mexican woman following closely on the heels of the two men.

A third man, dressed in aqua scrubs stepped in front of her and placed his hands on her shoulder. "Ma'am, please wait out there." He pointed to the double doors and tried to steer her toward them.

"NO!!!" She twisted away from him, but he grabbed her elbow.

"MOMMY!"

"Excuse me, Ma'am. Please..."

The woman ignored him, her arms stretched outward as the gurney disappeared around the corner. "Niņita! Mi bebé!"

The man pushed her toward the doors, his voice becoming more firm, and two nurses arrived to help him guide the emotional woman out of the ER. Blair wasn't exactly sure why they wouldn't let her be with her daughter, unless they thought she was so hysterical she'd get in the way of them treating the child.

When the double doors closed behind them, the woman's screams became slightly muffled, but they still sounded strong and heart-wrenching. The little girl was still crying for her momma. A lump grew in Blair's throat and he wanted to swallow, but his mouth and throat were so dry it hurt to even try.

He looked back at the mirror hanging on the wall. The team that had been working on the gunshot victim had now turned to the little girl. The man lay limp on the table, his eyes open and staring blankly up at the ceiling. Blair blinked, his eyes growing hot. *He's dead?* How could they put a little girl next to a dead man with a hole in his chest?

A nurse broke off from the team surrounding the little girl and quickly lifted the sheet to cover the man. At least now the corpse was hidden from sight.

Hidden. Covered up. Once a man, now nothing but unliving flesh and bone. Life is *that* fragile. *How many times have I or Jim come close to dying?*

Too many.

*And where is Jim? I called him. He should be here by now.*

The doors swung inward again, admitting the three personnel who had guided the woman to the ER. Another stretcher followed them in, this one holding a young, black male in restraints as the paramedics rushed him inside.

"You bastards! I kill them! I'll fucking kill them!" The injured man struggled against the bonds holding him, his dark eyes angry. The stretcher shook with his efforts to break free, but the doctors and EMT's ignored him as they pushed the gurney around the corner.

They didn't push him very far though. Blair glanced in the mirror and saw them place the stretcher against a wall and walk away. The patient continued his struggles, his screams beating into Blair's skull like a drum.

"They shot Jay! I'll kill them! Jay! I'll kill them! You bastards!"

Was he high on something, too? Blair leaned against the wall, trying to block out the man's angry words. God, there was so much misery in this place -- pain, anger, fear, grief. It weighed on him -- like being chained to a cement block and sinking toward the bottom of the sea.

"Jay! They shot Jay! I'll kill them! Bastards! Let me out of here! I'll kill them!"

Jay? Who was he? A friend? A brother? A gangster? A drug dealer? Or maybe just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was he dead? Probably, else he'd likely be in the ER, too.

Life really is too fragile. One second here, the next second gone. Death is the common denominator, binding across cultures. Across beliefs. Across heaven and earth. Death is the one true constant. Life is but an anomaly. One lonely planet in an otherwise dead solar system.

*Maybe we're not even supposed to be here. Maybe it WAS just one big cosmic accident. The big bang.*

But that couldn't be completely true. There were glimmers of goodness in the world.

Like Jim. *Where are you, Jim? You promised you'd be here soon. My head and my leg hurt and I'm cold and I just want a drink of water... and I wish that guy would shut up.*

"Get me out of here you bastards! Jay! They killed Jay!"

Below the man's screams, Blair could still make out the tearful pleas of the little girl calling for her mother.

Why couldn't they give her something? Make her sleep? This was no place for a child. All this blood and pain and misery -- it wasn't something a little girl should witness. Especially not one who was hurting and scared and wanting her mother. It should be quiet and warm.

Quiet and warm. God, he wanted to go home. *Jim, please come take me home.*

He was stuck here until Jim arrived. No wallet. No keys. His car was a mile or so away. And he couldn't even walk because of his leg.

"Jay! Please, someone! Jay! Do something!"

'Please, someone. Do Something.' How many times had he heard those words? Too many. His work with Jim wasn't always pleasant, but there were always people who needed help, and he always tried to give it to them.

"JAY! You bastards! You killed him!"

Whoever Jay was, he was loved. At least he died loved. Whether he was a gangster or an innocent, he left someone behind who missed him.

"Mamma! Por favor! Momma! Lastima!"

Blair glanced back at the mirror, but he couldn't see the little girl because the doctors and nurses were clustered around her, blocking his view. He could only listen to her cries. God, how could they stand it? Someone should get her mother, let her in the ER to comfort her child.

A door on the far wall swung inward, admitting a woman in a white lab jacket. A thin -- almost gaunt -- man with stringy blond hair and bloodshot eyes followed her to a desk nestled in the corner as she lectured him, her voice flat and tired.

"So now we're going to release you so you can shoot that crap back in your bloodstream until it kills you or almost kills you so you can come back here and waste everyone's time -- again!" She dropped into the chair behind the desk and handed him a pen and paper. "Now just sign right here and you'll be on your way so you can go back to frying your brain."

The man blinked and took the pen with one shaking hand, scribbling his signature at the bottom. He had the look of someone in shock, his eyes wide and dazed, his face slack but tinged with confusion.

"Thank you very much. I'm sure we'll be seeing you again." She gestured toward the double door leading to the waiting room and then rose from her seat to disappear around the corner.

The man seemed uncertain, but slowly moved away from the desk. He passed Blair, walking like a zombie and pushing through the doors to leave the ER.

"JAY!!! They killed Jay! Oh God! Please, someone!"

Blair's vision blurred and he blinked. Wetness spilled onto his cheeks and he realized he was crying.

Quickly, he scrubbed at his cheeks, wiping away the tears. God, his head hurt. *Jim, man, where are you? Please be on your way.*

"Mama! Lastima! Lastima!"

Couldn't someone give that child something for the pain? He looked to the mirror. The crowd around her had parted somewhat, so he could just make out her small figure on the gurney. She was fighting the doctors and nurses, and it looked like they they were trying to clean her head wound and get her hooked up to an IV.

The thud of the doors followed by footsteps indicated someone else had entered the ER, but Blair kept his gaze on the mirror, riveted by the scene. The little girl... someone should get her mother. She needed her mother.

"Chief?"

Blair tripped in his breathing and turned his head. Jim? *Oh God, thank you God.*

Jim stood less than a foot away, his eyes pinched with concern. "Are you okay? What happened?"

What happened? He chewed at his bottom lip, trying to remember the details. There had been a guy... "He took my wallet and my Swiss Army knife... and that case you gave me for Christmas after Alex... He took my jacket and my shoes, too. I'm cold. Can I go home now, Jim?"

"Jesus, Blair." Jim slipped out of his black leather jacket and draped it over Blair's shoulders. It was a lot warmer than the thin hospital gown, and Blair slid his arms into the sleeves and hugged himself, reveling in the warmth.

It was so warm on the inside from Jim's body heat. And it smelled like Jim, too. Funny, he'd never realized that Jim had a distinct smell. Or maybe he *had* and just hadn't paid it much attention.

Jim's hand came to rest on top of Blair's head as the detective turned and grabbed a passing doctor by the elbow. "Listen, can someone tell me what's going on with my partner here? I got a call..."

The doctor pulled away from Jim and glanced quickly at Blair. "I don't know. He's not my patient. Go ask the triage nurse. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He turned and hurried away, disappearing through the door in the far wall.

"Great." Jim looked back down at Blair, the anger in his eyes fading instantly. "How are you doing, Sandburg? Where are you hurt?"

Blair swallowed, his throat scratchy and dry. "C-Can I have some water, please?"

"Water? Sure, buddy, hold on." Jim turned, and the room seemed to grow darker as he walked away. Then it tilted, and the floor came up to hit him in the face just before the lights went out.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim heard the soft thud and spun around. "God. Blair." He lunged forward, crouching beside his partner and gently feeling along his neck and back for injuries.

Carefully, he turned Sandburg on his back, wincing at the new red spot on his temple. His eyes were closed, his face pale, and his breathing shallow.

"I need some help here!"

A doctor and a nurse rushed to help, kneeling beside the unconscious man and pushing Jim aside.

The doctor barely glanced at him. "What happened?"

"He just passed out." Jim moved back, letting the two people do their jobs. He felt a headache growing behind his eyes, and the first sight he'd caught of Blair on the gurney came back to him.

He'd walked through the double doors to see Sandburg slouched against a wall, his feet dangling over the edge of the gurney. But it was his eyes that sent a chill down Jim's spine. The kid had been staring at the round mirror on the wall, a deep despair in his eyes. He'd looked empty. Tired. Drained.

"Let's get him on a drip." The doctor looked up and waved to an orderly down the hall.

Jim rose to his feet. "Is he going to be okay? Can you tell me what his injuries are? When was he brought here?"

"In a minute, sir," the doctor answered.

Jim took a deep breath and moved back, giving the orderly room. His chest was tight with anger, but he pushed it down. He supposed his answers could wait a few more minutes. Right now, he wanted to make sure they gave Blair the proper attention.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair woke to a dim room. Soft, orangy light filtered through the window, indicating twilight. He blinked, and it took him a moment to realize he was laying in bed in his room.

He was warm, and his mouth wasn't dry anymore. His leg didn't hurt too badly, and his headache had faded to a soft buzz.

The door swung inward and Jim peeked his head inside. "Hey, Chief. How're you feeling?"

He swallowed. "Better."

He shifted beneath the covers, feeling something thick around his arms and chest that crinkled when he moved. He pulled down the covers to reveal Jim's black, leather jacket.

Confused, he looked back at his friend. "Why am I sleeping in your jacket?"

Jim smiled and shuffled into the room to sit on the edge of the mattress. "You were in and out when I brought you home. When I tried to take it off, you mumbled a protest and hugged it around you so I couldn't get it off. I figured it was best I not argue with you."

"Oh." Blair swallowed and pulled the covers back to his chin. His headache was starting to make itself known again.

"You think you can tell me what happened, now, Chief?"

Blair furrowed his brow, confused. His memories were strange. He thought he remembered talking on the phone with Jim at the hospital and telling him what had happened. But Jim hadn't shown up right away, and then a nurse came to ask him for the cell phone number.

"Where were you?"

Jim raised his eyebrows. "What?'

"At the hospital... Didn't I call you?"

"No. I got a call from a nurse saying you had been mugged and could I come down to the hospital."

"Oh." He felt a yawn rise in his chest and gave into it, his eyes tearing from the deep inhalation. He swallowed and shifted further beneath the covers. "I guess I must have dreamed it."

"Sorry I didn't get there sooner. They told me you'd been brought in two hours before I arrived."

"Really?" His voice was low and drowsy, but he tried to appear fully awake. "It seemed longer."

His stomach growled, and he suddenly realized he was hungry. When was the last time he'd eaten? How long had he been home? It had been night at the hospital. Now the sun was setting.

"When did we get home?"

Jim grabbed the covers and pulled them down. "Early this morning. You've been sleeping all day." He slid his arm beneath Blair's back. "Now come on. Let's get you some food."

Food sounded really good at the moment. Jim draped Blair's arm across his shoulders and pulled, urging him upward. Blair's leg protested, the muscles stiff and the pain flaring to life. He grimaced, but leaned on Jim and hobbled out of his room and into the kitchen.

"Here you go, Chief." Jim lowered him into one of the dining chairs and then moved to the refrigerator, rummaging around for some food. "What do you want?"

"Something light would probably be best."

"Okay."

Blair rested his arms on the table and lowered his head, closing his eyes against the budding headache.

"You think you can tell me what happened last night?"

Blair swallowed, keeping his eyes closed. "I don't remember everything. I was on my way home and I stopped off at the store for something. I didn't even make it inside. This guy stuck a gun in my back and pushed me into the alley. I let him have my wallet, but then he patted me down and wanted my Swiss Army knife. It gets fuzzy after that. Next thing I remember is waking up in the hos..."

"Here you go."

Blair opened his eyes and straightened, startled by the steaming bowl and spoon set in front of his nose on the table. What? How had Jim fixed dinner so fast?

Jim smiled down at him and patted his cheek. "You zonked out, Chief. Now eat."

Zonked out? *I fell asleep? Mid-sentence? Man, I must really be tired.*

He looked down at his bowl. Vegetable soup. The steam warmed his face, the scent making his stomach groan in anticipation. "Thanks, Jim."

"You're welcome."

Blair lifted his spoon and sipped carefully at the hot liquid. It tickled his cheeks and warmed his chest going down. God, it was *delicious.*

He stomach groaned louder, his hunger kicking in with full force, and he devoured the bowl. He must have finished it in record time, because Jim chuckled and took the bowl. "Seconds?"

Blair shook his head, satisfied by the heavy warmth filling his stomach. "No, I'm good. Thanks."

But now he had to go to the bathroom. With a groan, he pushed himself off the table and rose to his feet.  Jim was at his side immediately. "Where you going?"

"Bathroom."

"Okay, let me help you. The doc sent you home with crutches." He gestured toward the coat rack, and Blair saw the crutches leaning against the wall. "But right now I don't think you're awake enough to use them without falling on your face."

Blair frowned even as he leaned against Jim for support. "I'm awake." Okay, so maybe he was still feeling a bit drowsy. "Did they give me something?"

"Pain killers. I woke you up a couple hours ago to give you another dose."

"Oh. I don't remember."

"So I figured."

Jim guided him to the bathroom, then let him go inside and do his business on his own. A few minutes later, Blair finished and hobbled into the hallway. Jim was still there waiting and wrapped an arm around Blair's waist for support.

"Bed?"

Blair suppressed a yawn. "Yeah. Guess so."

By the time he made it to the bed, his leg was throbbing. He settled beneath the covers, wincing, and tried to ignore the pain. Damn, his last dose was only two hours ago, which meant he wouldn't be able to take another one for at least three or four hours."

Jim sat on the edge of the bed, jostling Blair a little. "Leg hurt?"

"A bit." He closed his eyes, grateful that Jim hadn't asked for his jacket back. Even though the leather itself was uncomfortable to sleep in, its warm weight gave him a sense of security and made him feel less alone... not like how he'd felt at the hospital.

He shivered, his thoughts turning back to the dead gunshot victim and the little girl. And Jay. How many other people had taken their last breaths tonight? *I could have been one of them.*

"You okay?"

Blair opened his eyes, seeing Jim staring down at him, his brow creased with concern.

"Yeah, just processing everything."

Jim leaned forward and rested a hand on Blair's arm. "You need anything?"

Blair gave into another yawn, closing his eyes. "Naaah. I'm okay. Thanks."

"You sure?"

"Yeah." He snuggled deeper in the covers, delving into the warmth.

He was home, now... and safe. And it felt so good, even with the pain in his leg. But he couldn't help wondering about the other souls he'd seen at the hospital. The man who'd died. The little girl. The kid screaming for Jay. And the drug addict.

Compared to them, he was lucky. He'd made it through okay, and he had Jim.

"Thanks, Jim," he mumbled, realizing in a distant, abstract corner of his mind that he was falling asleep...

~~~~~~~ fin ~~~~~~~

 

Oh, and don't worry -- the mugger gets picked up later after another mugging and they recover Blair's Swiss Army knife! :-)
(I know you were all worried about that) *G*