BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE

(The Debt alternate scenes)

BY: Lyn

FEEDBACK TO: townsend297@gmail.com

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel are the property of Di Meo, Bilson, Petfly and Paramount. This fanfic was written for my own and others' enjoyment. No money has been paid and no copyright infringement is intended.

CATEGORY: Drama, Alternate scenes.

RATING: PG - Little bit of language.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Response to a request on the Sentinelangst List regarding 'The Debt.' "What if Jim wasn't with Blair when the warehouse blew up?" Parts of episode transcript from Becky's Transcript site here:

http://www.kelesa.net/transcripts.htm

Many thanks to my stellar betas: Audrey, Alison and EJ.

Jim could hear the telephone ringing in his apartment as he stepped out of the elevator on the third floor. Though his mind immediately went into its learned response, urging him to hurry before the caller hung up, his body did not want to cooperate. It had been a long, tiring day, the latest of several and he was bone-weary. On top of tidying up the reports on his previous case, he'd been working long hours with Sandburg, allowing the grad student to run several tests on his senses. The reasons were twofold; to assist Jim with controlling his hyperactive senses without risk of zone-outs and to provide Blair with the information necessary for his dissertation. The last round of tests that afternoon had focused on Jim's hearing and sense of direction and Jim could feel his headache building with every step he took.

The phone stopped ringing just as he put his key in the lock and Jim didn't know whether to feel relieved or concerned. Resolutely, he shrugged off the nagging worry as he hung his coat on the hook by the door. If it were important, whoever it was would phone back. As he walked into the kitchen and pulled the makings of a stir-fry from the refrigerator, and snagged a cold beer as well, he saw the red light flashing on his answering machine.

Once he had his chicken stir-fry spooned onto a plate, he walked into the living room, breaking his own strict house rules and seated himself on the couch to eat. He reached for the television remote control, then remembered his messages and switched on the answering machine instead. He scrolled quickly through the half-dozen expected sales calls, then rolled his eyes as Sandburg's voice spilled from the speaker.

"Hey, Jim. I thought you'd be home by now. Larry, will you wait just a minute?" Jim frowned as he heard indistinct, somewhat high-pitched chatter in the background. Then Blair spoke again. "Sorry about that. Listen, you were supposed to drop the video camera off at the university when you came into the lab this afternoon. I know it's late but I really, really need it, man! I don't suppose you could bring it over to my place tonight, could you? Larry, wait a minute. TV's not even on yet and you're going crazy. Anyway, here's my address…oh, man, hang on a minute, Jim. Larry's going nuts here. I'll just turn on the TV and he should settle down. I'm really beginning to question my choice of research subject. Look, I'll phone you back in about ten minutes."

Jim shook his head as the machine clicked off, then groaned as his cell phone rang. "Ellison."

"Jim, Simon. We've got what looks like a drug lab explosion in the warehouse district. Looks like we may have a gang feud going on here."

Jim groaned. "Can't someone else pick this one up, sir? I'm really beat."

"You're up next on the roster, Jim. Sorry. Everyone else is tied up. Here's the address."

Sighing, Jim listened as Simon recited the address, then hung up the phone. Levering himself up from his comfortable spot, Jim placed his dinner in the refrigerator and headed for the door.

~o0o~

Darkness covered him like a shroud, the total blackness disorientating and suffocating. Something skittered along his back, a high-pitched chattering accompanying its frantic movements.

"Larry? 'Zat you?" His lips felt thick and wet with a foul-tasting metallic taste and his words sounded mangled, but the movement stopped, then shifted upward and a tiny hand clasped painfully in his hair. "Ow! Larry, quit it."

Blair reached a hand up, waving it above his head until he found the small paw and uncurled the fingers from his hair. The ape's frightened cries began again and Blair let his hand slip further back until he could feel Larry's coarse hair beneath his touch. Slowly, he petted the little animal, both gaining comfort from the contact.

He tried to focus his wandering thoughts. What had happened? Larry had been upset, jumping up and down in his cage so forcefully that he had almost knocked it to the ground. Blair had managed to get the door open a split second before a deafening roar had split the air and a huge shock wave of sensation slammed him into the ground. Another memory surfaced. He'd been talking to someone…Jim! Oh, God! Was Jim here too?

"Jim? Jim, you there?" His voice faded on the final word and he felt exhaustion tugging at him. He shouldn't go to sleep, he had to get up and moving. Placing his hands at his sides, Blair slowly began to lever his aching body up, then collapsed with a scream of pain as something sharp tore agonizingly into his flesh. He lay there, panting raggedly, feeling warm wetness trickle down his back, swallowing back the nausea that surged up his throat.

Something tickled at his nose and he sneezed violently, then moaned softly as the sudden movement dug the sharpness deeper into his skin and sent hot agony radiating up his leg. Smoke! I have to get out!

Keeping his body flat, Blair blinked rapidly, trying to see past the darkness, finally rewarded with blurry shadows looming over him. He tried to drag himself forward but his right leg was caught under something and wouldn't budge, his panicked struggles were only serving to create further pain and shatter his self-control.

He vomited suddenly, unexpectedly, and turned his head to the side so that he didn't choke, feeling wetness dribble from his mouth and pool beneath his cheek. He managed to shift slightly sideways, away from the mess and heard something creak ominously above him. He got one hand up in a vain attempt at self-protection just before a heavy weight crashed downward, landing with a painful thump on his head. Bright light flashed behind his eyeballs and as he lost consciousness, he heard Larry screech.

~o0o~

Jim pulled his truck into a space beside Simon's car and climbed out, pausing for a moment to survey the still-smoldering wreckage in front of him. Showing his ID to the uniform on guard at the entrance, he made his way through the collapsed structure, ducking around debris and firefighters until he saw Joel Taggart up ahead.

Joel acknowledged him with a nod and a glance behind him. "Hey, Jim. Where's your shadow?"

"Working on some top-secret research project," Jim replied, grinning. He slapped Joel on the back. "What? I'm not good enough for you these days, Joel?"

Joel shrugged, his round face creasing with mirth. "Sure you are, Jim. It's just since me and the kid spent time in Kincaid's clutches, I've kind of grown attached to him. He grows on a person."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Yeah, like mold." They both knew he was joking. In the short time Blair had been riding with him, the anthropologist had become a popular honorary member of Major Crimes, and Taggart in particular had a soft spot for the young man. Jim rubbed his hands together. "All right, what have we got?"

"It looks like when the gasoline went up, the chemical precursor exploded too," Joel said. "That's what tore out the wall. You know, with all the stuff they had around here, man…" He shook his head in obvious disgust. "This was a major drug lab."

Jim nodded, gazing around at the mess of debris, collapsed walls and wires stripped from the drooping ceiling. He tried to pull back his sense of smell as the pungent odor of chemicals, combined with flame-retarding foam and smoke irritated his sinuses. "Good work, Taggart. Just one thing missing."

"What?"

"The drugs."

"Jim! Down here." Jim and Joel made their way down a steep flight of mostly intact stairs and found Simon standing with a group of men on the lower floor. "I've asked the anti-gang unit to get involved in this. I think you know Lieutenant Williams. Detective Ellison, Captain Taggart."

Williams eyed them solemnly. "Taggart. Yeah."

Jim smiled at the Lieutenant as Williams held out his hand. "I think we worked that case last year together. I thought you gave up smoking."

William pulled the cigarette from his mouth and studied it. "I did. Problem is, smoking didn't give up on me." He threw the butt away and ground it out under his shoe.

Simon indicated the second man who stood silently beside Williams. "This here is Earl Gaines, one of the best men in Williams' unit."

Jim shook the man's hand. "Gaines."

Gaines nodded, looking sullen. "Hey."

"I remember your game winner against Oregon in '93. Hell of a catch," Jim said admiringly.

Gaines shrugged. "Yeah, I had a few lucky plays."

"All right, what have you got, Jim?" Simon took charge of the conversation again, steering it back on track.

"So far, we've only been able to ID two of the bodies -- Maurice Brown and an Eldridge Wardell -- both known gang-bangers with extensive rap sheets. And the others, we're not sure of yet."

"Byron Walker, Darnell Devane and Vernon Simms," Gaines offered.

Jim looked back at him. "What was that?"

"Byron Walker, Darnell Devane and Vernon Simms," Gaines repeated, his voice a flat monotone.

"How do you know?" Simon asked.

"I looked at the bodies in the coroner's van. They're all members of the 357's."

"So you really think this is a 357 lab?"

Gaines nodded. "No doubt."

Jim held up a hand as he absorbed Gaines' information. "So, we're not talking about some punk wannabe gang?"

"Wait," Joel interjected. "The 357's are big time. Who'd be crazy enough to hit them?"

"What about the Deuces?" Williams suggested.

Gaines shook his head. "Not likely."

"The Deuces are their main rivals," Simon added. "It makes sense."

"There's been a truce between Deuces and 357's for over a year," Gaines said doggedly.

Simon stared at him. "Well, truces break down, Earl."

"Well, I think we would have heard sooner than this. I've known the Deuces' leader, Antoine Hollins, most of my life. He made a promise to stop the killing. It's hard for me to believe he would just throw that away."

Jim gazed around the wreckage. "Well, someone sure as hell did, huh?"

"Captain Banks?" A uniformed officer stood at the top of the stairs. "You might want to see this, sir."

Simon nodded. "On my way. Joel, you want to finish off in here? Make sure any evidence is bagged and documented. Come on, Jim."

The two men made their way back upstairs and followed the officer outside. He led them around the corner of the warehouse and pointed. "Looks like someone might have been living here."

"Oh, God."

Simon looked sharply at Jim. "What is it?'

Jim stared at the partially collapsed roof of the warehouse, then at the car parked next to the building. "That's Sandburg's car, sir."

~o0o~

Fire Chief Conrad looked at the two police officers, then back at the flattened warehouse. He shook his head sadly. "I'm going to send some men in to check, just as soon as we've got the structure stabilized, but I can't imagine anybody surviving that."

Jim followed the fire chief's gaze, then attempted to send out his hearing, trying to get past the myriad of other voices and heartbeats within the wreckage. He shook his head, frustrated as his control wavered, then broke down completely. He needed Sandburg there, whispering suggestions, needed Blair's hand on his back or shoulder, grounding him, keeping him from slipping into a zone-out.

He walked over to the warehouse, past Sandburg's precious Corvair, trying not to look at the dust that coated it or the dents in the bodywork from flying debris. He put his foot gingerly on the first step leading up to the front door, testing to see if it would hold his weight, then trotted the rest of the way up.

"Hey!" The fire chief took a step toward him, shaking off Simon's hand. "I can't let you in there."

"Can you ask everyone to just stop for a minute, please? I want to listen, see if I can hear anyone inside."

"This is a rescue operation, Detective. I told you I'll send my own men in as soon as I decide it's safe to do so."

"The man who lived here was…is Detective Ellison's partner." Simon pulled on Conrad's arm until the fireman turned reluctantly to face him. "Jim's had special training in Search and Rescue. He's also an ex-Army Ranger who spent eighteen months stranded in Peru."

Conrad nodded impatiently. "I've heard all about Ellison, Captain. Doesn't mean he can come in here and take over."

"He's my partner." Jim's anguished voice had both men glancing quickly up at the detective. "Just ask everyone to stop for a minute, please."

Conrad studied Jim for a moment, then sighed and nodded. Placing a bullhorn to his mouth, he asked for complete silence. Jim turned back to the warehouse entrance and focused himself once more. Extending his hearing, he sent it into the dark recesses beyond his sight.

At first all he could hear was the creaking of stressed metal and timber and the occasional sound of debris falling to the ground. Jim searched for and found a heartbeat on the other side of the warehouse. He had no idea whose it was. It didn't matter. He wanted to use it to draw his hearing toward similar sounds.

Homing in on the one heartbeat, he discarded the others surrounding it, then gradually began to pull his hearing back, dragging the sensory net with him. There! Within Blair's side of the warehouse, he could hear several heartbeats, most of them rapid and quite faint. Jim winced as a sharp snap, followed by a brief, high-pitched squeal met his ears and one of the heartbeats stopped abruptly. Mice? Rats? Jim wrinkled his nose and shook his head. What the heck was Sandburg doing living in a dump like this?

He moved past the rapid heartbeats, casting them aside, and continued to search. A groan, croaky and full of pain jumped at him and Jim followed the voice with relief. Finally, he centered on a slow, pounding heartbeat. A cough, and wheezing from lungs that sounded constricted somehow, was followed by another moan, then Jim felt a nauseating mix of fear and relief clutch at his heart as a whisper broke from the depths of the ruined building.

"Help. Somebody? Jim?"

The voice subsided to rapid panting punctuated by breathy grunts of obvious discomfort. Jim leaned into the doorway as far as he dared, extending his sight to search further. "Sandburg? Blair? It's Jim. Keep talking, Chief, so I can find you. Okay?"

"Jim?" There was a sudden sound of movement followed immediately by an ominous cracking and a fall of plaster dust that had Jim coughing and choking. He reached up a hand to cover his mouth and nose and rapidly closed down his sense of smell as much as possible. "Sandburg? You all right?"

Jim waited anxiously for a reply, his trepidation mounting with each silent second. Then, a voice, weak but familiar.

"Jim? 'Zat you?"

Jim smiled and rested his head on the doorframe in relief. "Yeah, Chief, it's me. Try not to move, all right?"

"Right."

"Can you tell me where you're hurt?"

Jim felt someone move to his side and glanced briefly over to see Conrad hovering closely.

"Don't know, 'xactly," Blair huffed. "Leg's caught and there's something digging in my back. I think I'm bleeding." His voice took on a shaky, almost childlike quality. "It's dark, Jim."

"I know. I'm going to come get you, all right? You just hang in there for a couple more minutes. Okay? Blair? Blair?"

There was another long silence before Blair's voice came again. "Larry's here, too. Jim, he won't wake up."

Jim heard the sniffle, and could almost smell the salt of Blair's tears. "Blair? I'm coming to get you in just a minute. You hang tough for me."

"'Kay."

Jim turned away from the heart-wrenching sound of Blair trying to rouse Larry and fixed his attention on Conrad. "Can you fix me up with some rope and a helmet?"

Conrad began to shake his head even before Jim stopped speaking. "No way! Sorry, Ellison, special skills or not, this is a rescue operation for men trained in this. Leave it to us and we'll do our best to get your partner out alive."

Jim started to argue before a soft but firm "Jim" caught his attention and he looked down to see Simon give a firm shake of his head.

"Yes, sir." He turned back to Conrad. "I'm pretty sure I can pinpoint his location for you, though. Any chance we can get hold of some blueprints?"

"Already have them." Joel Taggart came trotting up, holding a roll of paper above his head.

"All right." Jim followed Conrad reluctantly back down the stairs, his hearing still tuned to the soft whisper of Blair's voice from within.

"You hear that, Larry? Jim's coming to get us. Don't be dead, Larry. Please."

~o0o~

A tension-filled eternity later, Jim and Simon watched as a suited and helmeted fireman made his way into the remains of Blair's warehouse, a guide rope fed in carefully behind him by his teammates. Twenty minutes later, he came back out, dirty and disheartened.

"Sorry, Chief. I tried every which way to get to the guy, but there's just too much debris. I backtracked four or five times…nothing." He shot Jim an apologetic look, but Jim was back to scrutinizing the plans.

"I've got an idea. This way." Without further ado, Jim snatched up a coil of rope and a hard hat, then ran back around to the other side of the warehouse. Gaines and Williams were still there, poking about the wreckage, watching curiously as Jim ran past.

"Jim, wait up!" Simon called the order, knowing it wouldn't be obeyed. He'd seen that determined look on Jim's face before. "Jim!"

Jim turned back to look at him before heading to the far end of the warehouse. "Taggart said the explosion blew out the wall. I think I can get to him from here, with Blair's help."

"Blair's help?" Simon stared at him, his curiosity piqued.

"I can follow his voice in."

Simon turned to Conrad. "Let him give it a shot, Chief. I'll take full responsibility."

Conrad looked over to where Jim was already pulling away more parts of the sheet-board from the wall, making room for his body to squeeze between the framework of the building. "All right. Macy?" He turned to the firefighter who'd tried to get to Blair a short time before. "Back him up, huh?"

"You got it, Chief."

~o0o~

Blair's head was pounding in concert with each beat of his heart and his eyes felt gritty and sore. The wetness on his mouth had dried to a sticky residue that cracked open the cuts on his lips whenever he tried to speak, and his throat and lungs felt as though they'd been scrubbed with sandpaper. His injured leg had settled to a dull throbbing that kept time with his head and heart and the pain in his back had faded entirely unless he moved. The worst thing now was the cold. Bone-aching, mind-numbing cold that didn't dissipate no matter how hard he shivered.

Of more concern to Blair, was the absence of sound from the tiny ape whose weight he could still feel upon his back. He could no longer reach up to touch the silent primate; his last panicked movements had sent him back to the floor heavily, and his right arm appeared to be twisted awkwardly beneath him. To move, Blair knew, would bring more pain and possibly more of the building down upon him, so he lay as still as he could and exhorted the animal to wake.

"Blair? Can you hear me?"

Jim's voice was faint in Blair's ears, seeming to come from behind him and Blair gingerly lifted his head, craning his neck to see. Sharp agony erupted in his back again and he cried out, embarrassed as tears filled his eyes and streamed down his dirty cheeks, even though he knew no one except Jim could see them.

"Jim? Please. I can't stay here anymore. Get me out."

"We're coming, Chief." Jim's voice was reassuring in the blackness and Blair hiccupped a sob. "Keep talking, all right, Sandburg? So I can find you."

There was a sudden shift in the dead weight on Blair's neck. Then he heard a soft keening begin. Blair smiled through his tears. "Larry? It's okay. Jim's coming to get us out. You just hang on, all right?"

A bobbing light illuminated the shapes of the ruins in front of him, then shone directly onto his face as he turned his head to look around, and Blair clenched his eyes tightly shut. He felt the comforting touch of a hand on his ankle, shifting up to his calf. "Jim?"

The hand patted him gently. "I'm right here, Chief. Looks like you're covered up pretty good. Sit tight and we'll shift some of this off you and get you out of here."

"Jim? Larry's awake."

"That's good, Chief. Any idea where he is?"

Blair gave a snort of laughter that sounded faintly hysterical to his own ears. "He's laying on my back, man. I can't tell how bad he's hurt though."

There was a brief moment of silence, followed by a curse. "A monkey? Larry's a monkey?"

An affronted screech from Larry accompanied Blair's weak protest. "He's a Barbary Ape, Jim. See, you've offended him." He broke off suddenly with a cry of pain as Larry chose that moment to launch himself from Blair's back and make a break for freedom.

Through the agony that darkened his vision and caused nausea to surge once more, Blair heard Jim's startled shout. As the sharpness shredded up his back and refused to recede, Blair gave into the pain and passed out.

~o0o~

Jim managed to get his hands up in front of his face as a small, dark shape suddenly launched itself at him, then scurried over his shoulder, heading for the dim square of light beyond. He heard Blair cry out, then go limp.

"There's a monkey coming out. Try to catch it," he heard Macy call out to the men waiting behind them.

Reaching out, Jim let his hand shift further up Blair's body, pausing in concern as his fingers detected wetness covering much of Blair's back. His heightened sense of smell told him it was blood and he shifted his hand upward, trying to ascertain what had caused the injury. Just above Blair's motionless body, Jim's searching fingers encountered a sharp-edged piece of metal that hung down from the roof. There was a small gap between the metal tip and Blair's back and Jim dialed up his sight further to see how much room they had.

He swallowed convulsively at his first unimpeded sight of Blair's face. The anthropologist was unconscious, his face pale and stained with blood over one cheek, his forehead and mouth. His lips were puffy as was one eye and his right arm appeared to be caught under his body. Jim let his gaze travel backward and saw that Blair's right leg was buried beneath some hefty-looking pieces of plaster and what looked like the remains of a table and a TV. Carefully, he reached forward again and pressed his fingers to Blair's left wrist. He breathed a sigh of relief as his touch confirmed what his hearing had already told him. Blair's heartbeat was slow and weak but still present.

He craned his neck to look over his shoulder. "I think we can shift the debris off his leg and drag him out but we'll need to keep him completely flat. There's a spear of metal that's digging into his back every time he moves too high. There's not a lot of space."

Macy nodded, then pressing a button on his receiver, relayed the information back to Conrad and Banks. Turning back, he crawled forward until he was level with Jim and began to carefully move the wreckage from Blair's leg. Once that was done, Macy found he had enough room to get a splint around Blair's obviously injured leg and pushed a cervical collar into Jim's hands. "Any chance you can get that around his neck?"

Jim nodded and stretched up, cursing as the piece of metal hanging above Blair sliced at his hand.

"You all right?"

Jim nodded at Macy's question. "Just a cut." He got the collar wrapped around Blair's neck, then turned back. "There's not enough room to get him on a backboard in here, but if I slip a rope around him, we should be able to drag him backward without jerking him around too much."

Macy nodded his agreement, then notified the others they were on their way out. Jim looped the rope to the belt loops on Blair's pants, not wanting to risk moving the unconscious man up against the sharp metal again. Signaling for Macy to begin crawling backward, Jim found he was able to shimmy up and around until he was at Blair's head and could keep Blair's neck and back as still as possible. Macy tugged the injured man backward in smooth, even pulls.

Jim was so focused on Blair that he didn't realize they were out until gloved hands slid beneath his and he looked up into the concerned face of a paramedic.

"We've got him, Detective."

Jim nodded and allowed Simon and Joel to help him through the sagging framework, their hands remaining on him as he stood, stretching out cramped muscles and wiping plaster dust from his smarting eyes. He watched as a paramedic leaned over Blair's unconscious form, taking a quick set of vitals before helping to strap him onto a backboard, then lift him onto a gurney.

As Blair was wheeled toward the door, Jim turned to Simon. "Sir…"

Simon nodded. "Go with him. I'll get there as soon as I can."

Jim patted the captain's shoulder in thanks and took off after the rapidly disappearing gurney.

~o0o~

Jim's eyes didn't leave Blair's pale, bruised face, and his hand clasped tightly to Blair's cold, limp one for the entire trip to the hospital. Somewhere along the way, the paramedic in the back started an IV and hung a bag of fluid from a hook on the roof, then busied himself taking more vitals and checking Blair's eyes and level of consciousness.

Jim felt a surge of elation at one point when Blair moaned softly and dazed blue eyes cracked open to stare at him. "Blair?"

He angled his body so that his own face was inches from Sandburg's, feeling hope plummet as Blair's eyes shuttered closed once more without a glimmer of recognition. The paramedic patted Jim's hand.

"His pupils are equal and reactive and his pulse is steady. All good signs."

~o0o~

They'd arrived at the hospital almost an hour before and Jim was still pacing the waiting room, turning rapidly every time he heard the trauma room door open. He spun again at the now-familiar sound and looked hopefully at the nurse who approached but she merely smiled apologetically, touching his arm as she passed.

"It shouldn't be much longer, Detective."

Jim nodded glumly and returned to his perusal of the mottled gray tiles beneath his feet.

"Detective Ellison?" He looked up, startled as he realized he'd started to zone on the tile pattern, and hurried quickly over to the dark-haired doctor who stood just outside the trauma room door. The doctor shook his hand and smiled wearily. "I'm Doctor Carter. We have Mr. Sandburg stabilized." He peered anxiously at Jim's face. "You're looking a little pale yourself. Why don't we sit down for a minute?"

Jim nodded gratefully and followed the doctor to the row of chairs against the wall. "How is he?" he asked as soon as they were both seated.

"Lucky, from what the paramedics tell me." The doctor consulted the case notes on his lap. "The major concern was the gash in his back. It was almost to the midline of his spine and our first concern was to rule out a spinal injury. The CT scan came back clear and we've transfused him with some blood. His right ankle was not fractured as we first feared, but badly sprained and we've immobilized it in a splint. He also took a nasty knock to the head, which gave him a mild concussion. He's bruised and cut and pretty sore but barring any complications, he'll be out of here in a few days."

Jim nodded, feeling his tension dissipate. "That's great, Doctor. Thanks. Can I go see him?"

The doctor stood and led the way down the corridor to the door. "Do you have any idea how his other friend is doing? I'm not aware of any other casualties coming in, but Mr. Sandburg is anxiously awaiting news of his friend, Larry."

Jim tried to stifle his smile. Only Sandburg… "I'll let him know that Larry's just fine."

"I'm relieved to hear it." Leaving Jim at the door to Blair's room, the doctor went to find his next patient.

~o0o~

Jim didn't think he'd ever seen Sandburg quite so still before, and he walked carefully to Blair's bedside, trying not to disturb the sleeping man. Blair stirred despite his best intentions as Jim lowered himself into the chair by the examination bed, and turned sleepy eyes toward him.

"Jim?" His voice sounded rusty, the words lisping slightly between swollen lips.

Jim reached a hand through the safety-rail and took Blair's. "How you doing, Chief?"

"Hurt…'vrywhere." Blair licked at his lips, wincing as his dry tongue opened a crack that oozed blood. Jim pulled a tissue from a box on the rollaway table and dabbed gently at the bead of blood. "Wha' happened?"

"Seems you've been living next door to a drug lab. It blew up."

Blair's eyes made a determined effort to widen in surprise, then gave up the battle and slid closed again. "Really?" He tensed suddenly and flailed about, trying to pull himself up. Jim stood quickly and pressed him back against the pillows.

"Take it easy, Chief. You've got stitches and IV's and God knows what else here. What is it? Are you in pain?"

Blair shook his head, panting heavily. "Larry?"

"Larry's fine, Chief, though he damn near gave me a heart attack when he launched himself at me. He's at the vet. They said someone could pick him up tomorrow. I'll arrange for him to get back to the university lab."

"Thank God."

Jim sat back down and studied his partner carefully. If anything, now that the blood and grime had been cleaned off, Blair looked worse than when Jim had first dragged him from the wreckage. His skin was an unhealthy gray color and he shivered uncontrollably, despite having several warmed blankets draped over him. His right hand was scraped and bruised, resting on his chest, an IV piercing the back of it, and his right leg was heavily bandaged and placed on top of a mound of pillows.

Jim looked around, and unable to find anything else, slipped off his jacket and placed it on top of the blankets already covering Blair. He smiled as Blair's uninjured hand appeared from beneath the covers and pulled the jacket so that it lay snugly against his throat. Outside, Jim heard a familiar voice approaching and he squeezed Blair's shoulder gently. "Captain's here. I'm going to let him know how you're doing. I can hear an orderly on his way to take you to your room."

"No. I can't stay here, Jim."

"What do you mean, Chief? You won't be going anywhere for a couple of days at least."

"Can't." Blair shook his head, then raised a shaky hand to his forehead. "No insurance."

"We'll figure it out later. Get some rest."

Blair's brow furrowed in seeming confusion then he nodded slowly, his eyes sliding closed. "'Kay. Night, Jim."

Jim chuckled. "Night, Chief."

He made his way out to the waiting room to fill in an anxious Simon.

~o0o~

The next three days were frantic ones for Jim, and Blair only saw the detective two or three times when he was able to tear himself away from the drug lab case and call in briefly to visit and catch Blair up on the latest details. Larry had been released back to the university and Blair had managed to convince a pretty nurse to wheel him out to the public phones that morning so that he could check on the little ape's condition. He'd been relieved to discover that Larry had escaped from the warehouse with just a few minor cuts.

And that was the problem he was worrying about now. The research project with Larry meant money. Money Blair had hoped to use to pay for books and fees, but which he now desperately needed to pay his hospital bill and rent a place to live. No matter which way he looked at it, he was never going to have enough, and each day he stayed in the hospital ate into the tiny amount of money he still had left over from his current month's pay. Blair cursed his bad luck. Trust the warehouse to blow up two days after he'd paid his rent.

His back itched and throbbed beneath the bandages, though his ankle had already recovered enough that he could put his weight on it for short periods of time. He was still suffering from headaches from his concussion and his chest felt tight and sore, but he knew he was lucky to be alive.

Turning his attention back to more pressing matters, Blair pushed away the lingering pain and discomfort of his injuries and tried to get his aching head to figure a way out of his current predicament. He only had one choice and with that in mind, he pressed the call button and waited for the nurse to appear.

~o0o~

Jim entered the hospital, his mood and step much lighter than it had been for the previous couple of days. They'd discovered who was behind the drug lab explosion and consequent gang war and managed to keep Earl Gaines' grandmother from harm, earning hard-won respect from the taciturn cop. Now Jim could slow down and spend a little time helping Sandburg recover and get back on his feet.

It had taken a good deal of thinking about when he'd first come up with the idea and he'd been uncertain enough to consult Simon. The captain had looked at him with a stunned expression and fumbled for his recently stubbed out cigar.

"Tell me you're kidding? Are you sure you didn't take a knock to the head yourself in that warehouse, Jim?"

"I just feel I owe him one," Jim explained, not entirely sure why he felt the way he did. "He's been putting in some solid time at the station, not just helping me out with my senses, I might add. He got your computer up and running, didn't he? He backed me up when all that shit happened over Juno."

"I don't deny any of it, Jim. But, Sandburg? In your apartment? Hasn't he got a family he can go to?"

Jim lowered himself into a chair. "If he has, he's never mentioned them, and I checked his records. His next of kin is his mother, Naomi, but there was no contact information. Think about it, Simon, would you let Daryl live in a place like that warehouse?"

"Of course not, but he's not your kid, Jim."

"I know that, but I also know he hasn't got two pennies to rub together. I just thought I'd offer him a bed for a couple of nights while he's still recuperating, maybe help him look around for a decent apartment."

A small smile twitched Simon's lips. "Sounds like you've already made up your mind."

Jim grinned back. "I guess I have." He stood. "Is it all right if I take the rest of the day off? I'll go pick Sandburg up from the hospital and get him settled at home. I rescued as much of his stuff as I could from the warehouse: a few books, some clothes. His laptop didn't have a mark on it. He'll be relieved when I tell him that."

"Go." Simon made a shooing motion with his hands. "Tell the kid I'm glad he's all right."

"Thanks, Simon."

Jim smiled now as he exited the elevator on Blair's floor and walked toward the nurses' desk. Simon often sounded like a bear with a sore head but underneath he was pure marshmallow.

He smiled at the nurse seated at the desk, writing up reports. "Paperwork, huh?"

She looked up, grimaced and nodded. "How can I help you, Detective? Did Mr. Sandburg forget something?"

"Forget? What do you mean?"

The nurse looked startled. "He signed himself out this morning. The doctor wanted him to stay another day. He was a little concerned that the gash on his back may have become infected but Mr. Sandburg insisted on leaving." At the stricken look on Jim's face, she reached for the phone. "I'll page Dr. Carter."

~o0o~

"I don't know what to tell you, Detective," the doctor said. "Mr. Sandburg insisted on leaving against medical advice. I gave him a prescription and a sample pack of antibiotics and told him to come back if he had any problems."

"Why didn't you call me?"

"Mr. Sandburg asked that I not contact you, Detective. I had to respect his wishes." He sighed and fiddled with the bell of his stethoscope. "We deal with homeless and indigent people every day, Detective. You would think when they have nothing to go back to, that they would appreciate a warm bed for a few nights, and they do, but when they want to leave, we can't stop them. I'm sorry." He turned to leave, then looked back. "I slipped him twenty dollars as he was leaving and told him to at least catch a cab to where he was going. Perhaps one of the drivers downstairs knows where he went."

Jim nodded and headed for the stairs at a run. "How long ago did he leave?"

"Around 8AM."

Jim glanced as his watch as he hit the stairs. Five hours. Where the hell would he have gone? Jim hit the exit doors at a run and made his way around the corner to the cab rank.

~o0o~

In his rush to get away from the hospital, he'd forgotten and given the cab driver this address. Blair looked in bewilderment at the burnt-out shell of what remained of his home. A skeletal cat wandered amid the matchstick ruins, searching for scraps. A tattered yellow police ribbon fluttered from the fence in the wind. Debris, all that was left of his former life here was strewn on the ground, muddied and blackened.

His backpack rubbed irritatingly against the stitches beneath the bandage on his back, making the wound throb in time with the pounding in his head. Blair lifted the straps, removing the backpack and hugged his meager belongings to his chest. Something glinted from beneath a fallen piece of timber and he stepped forward, bending to pick it up, wincing as the stitches pulled. It was the remains of his glasses, one lens cracked, the frames twisted beyond repair. He remembered taking them off because Larry kept pulling at them, fascinated with the shiny object.

"Hey!"

Blair turned at the shout, closing his fingers tightly around the glasses in his hand. He watched as a security guard approached.

"This is private property. Get out! There's nothing here for you to scavenge."

Blair wanted to protest but his words got caught behind the lump in his throat. He simply nodded and turned back toward the gate. It was raining again and he wiped at the moisture on his face, blinking rapidly as wetness blurred his vision. He slipped the fingers of his left hand into his pocket and pulled out the small handful of coins remaining. How could he have forgotten? He'd wasted the twenty dollars pressed on him by the kindly doctor at the hospital on a trip to no man's land.

He turned right at the gates and trudged slowly back toward the street, turning muddled thoughts over in his head. He could stay with his mom for a few days… No, she'd gone somewhere. Had she told him where she was going? He couldn't remember. He rubbed again at his head. Cold water drizzled down the back of his collar, and he shivered.

A sudden moment of clarity struck and he turned back quickly to look at the warehouse, almost falling as the movement caused his head to spin. He squinted at the space next to the warehouse. Where was his car? There was the security guard's van parked by the gates but he could see no other vehicles. Jim must have taken it somewhere.

Jim! He could go see Jim. Where? Which way? He turned in a slow circle, overbalancing and falling to his knees as the pavement rose up to meet him. Nausea surged and he vomited weakly, bringing up only watery bile, then scrabbled back on his hands and knees away from the mess. His thoughts were scrambled, flitting from his mind before he could grasp them. He collapsed onto his butt and dragged his body back so he sat leaning against the wire fence. Drawing his knees up to his chest, he rested his aching head upon them and, closing his stinging eyes, allowed himself to fall into his despair.

~o0o~

Jim spotted the huddled figure the instant he turned the corner leading to the warehouse. It was raining heavily now, with streaks of lightning skittering across the blackened sky. He pulled the truck in as close as he could and climbed out, hurrying to Blair's side.

"Sandburg?"

He rested a hand on Blair's wet head, the skin hot beneath his touch. Crouching beside the other man, and cupping Blair's chin in his hand, he gently lifted Blair's head. Blair's eyes opened slowly, gazing around in some confusion, then alighted on Jim. "Jim! I was coming to find you but I couldn't remember…" His voice faded and his head began to droop back to his chest.

Jim managed to get a hand under one of Blair's arms and levered his partner to his feet, quickly taking the dead-weight as Blair sagged against him. "Let's get you into the truck."

"No." Blair pulled away from him, staggering a few steps, turning back to face the warehouse.

"Sandburg, you're sick. Get in the truck, okay? I'll take you home."

Blair waved a loose-wristed hand. "'S'gone, Jim. Blew up."

"Yeah, buddy. I know." He grasped hold of Blair's sleeve but the younger man pushed away again, then shifted to look at him.

"Where am I going to go?"

"Come back to my place. We'll figure something out."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." He held a hand out, palm up to the sky. "You want to get out of the rain?"

Blair blinked slowly at him. "Okay."

By the time Jim had Blair belted into the seat beside him, the young man was asleep again. Heat poured off him, despite the shivers that wracked his body. Jim debated whether he should take him straight to the hospital, it was a safe bet that the wound on his back was infected, then opted to head for home, get the kid into dry clothes and figure it out from there. He'd already phoned the one number he'd been able to track down for Blair's mother. A disinterested voice on the other end of the line told him that Naomi had left for parts unknown and had left no contact number.

~o0o~

Voices whispered above him, intruding on his restless slumber. Hands poked and prodded at him, stirring up the burning in his back and awakening the throbbing in his ankle and head. He alternately shivered and sweated, trying to bat away the painful assaults on his body. Gentle hands turned him, inciting the previously abating nausea, then something sharp pricked his thigh, but before he could voice a complaint, firm fingers massaged away the sting. Coolness soaked his hot brow, washing away the sweat that clung to him and warm covers descended upon his shivering body. He drifted into dreamless sleep.

~o0o~

A murmur from the spare room had Jim awake in a moment and he swung his legs to the floor and sat up, scrubbing a hand over his gritty eyes. Early dawn showed through the balcony windows and looking around, he realized he'd fallen asleep on the couch. Another moan from the bedroom had him up and moving quickly. He stood at the doorway to the small room and looked in at the restless body in the bed.

A curly head emerged, arms wrestling valiantly with the covers that seemed to have a mind of their own. Grinning, Jim moved closer and reached to untangle the twisted mess.

"Morning, sunshine."

Red-rimmed eyes opened, then slammed shut in deference to the sunlight streaming in the window then opened again, more cautiously this time. Blair looked around in some confusion. "Jim." He winced, swallowed painfully and tried again. "Jim? Where'm I?"

"My place." Jim helped the drowsy man to sit up then piled more pillows behind him before pushing him gently back, angled slightly on his side to keep the pressure off the wound on his back. He poured a glass of water from the jug on the bedside table and handed it to Blair, placing his own hand around Blair's when the water threatened to slosh out of the tumbler.

Blair nodded his thanks and took a long drink, then sighed and laid his head back on the pillows. "Thanks. I don't remember coming here."

"I'm not surprised. You've been pretty out of it for the last day and a half. The doctor wanted to put you back in the hospital."

Blair's eyes widened. "I can't."

"I convinced him to let you stay here a while longer. See if the antibiotics helped."

Blair's brow furrowed. "Everything's kind of fuzzy."

Jim sat on the side of the bed. "Long story short. You signed yourself out of the hospital and headed back to the warehouse. I found you, brought you back here. You were pretty sick. You have an infection in the gash on your back. Doctor came and shot you full of antibiotics and painkillers and you've been sleeping pretty much ever since."

Blair appeared to think for a moment, then shook his head. "Nope. It's a total blank, man. What day is it?"

"Tuesday."

"Oh, man." Blair slapped a hand to his forehead, grimaced, then attempted unsuccessfully to sit up. "My classes."

"I phoned in, told them you were sick. I spoke to someone called Marty who said he can cover your classes until next week, but you owe him several phone numbers out of your little black book in return."

Blair snorted. "I'd better get a move on then. I have to find a new place to live. Where am I going to find another bargain like that warehouse, though?"

"Nowhere, I hope." Jim stood again and began folding the clothes he pulled from a box on the floor, depositing them in a small chest of drawers that sat by the curtained doorway. "That place was a health hazard for a start and right next door to a drug lab?" He shook his head solemnly.

"Jim, I swear I didn't know. I thought it was deserted."

"From anyone else, I'd think that was a cop-out, Sandburg, but with you, nothing surprises me anymore."

"I still have to find another place to live," Blair continued. "Something cheap. I'm going to have to replace some books, clothes, I have a hospital bill to pay, buy food… My research grant's out the window."

"Stay here."

Blair stared at him in surprise. "Really?"

"For a few days anyway, until you're back on your feet. Then I'll help you find a place."

"I can't pay you right now, but I will…" Blair held up a hand as Jim opened his mouth to speak. "No, I mean it. You keep a tab of everything and as soon as I get some money coming in, I'll pay you back."

"Sandburg, you help me with my senses, you spend extra time at the station with me, on cases, on stakeout…"

"I'm getting to write about you, man. It all evens out. I can't stay here for free."

Jim nodded slowly. "All right, tell you what, once you're back on your feet, you do some cooking, do your share of the chores and we'll call it square. Deal?"

"Deal."

"Okay." Jim picked up a pile of laundry and walked to the curtained doorway. "Feel like something to eat?"

"Actually, yeah."

"Good, go take a shower, don't lock the door in case you take a header in there, and don't use up all the hot water."

"Right. Jim, I don't suppose Larry…"

"Don't push your luck, Sandburg. Oh, and I'll fill you in on the house rules over breakfast."

FIN

September 23rd, 2002.

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