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The Heart of the Matter

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Jim turned, using the parallel bars to support himself, and then started back the other way. He had some feeling in his legs, but they wouldn’t support his weight, and they barely responded to his orders.

 

And Jim knew how that would sound if he spoke it out loud, but everything below his waist felt as though it didn’t belong to him these days.

 

“This is it,” Louisa, his physical therapist, insisted. “You’ve pushed yourself enough today.”

 

“I can do another round,” Jim insisted.

 

Louisa shook her head. “Maybe you could, but remember the deal you made when we started? I say when you go and when you stop, and right now, you need to stop.”

 

Jim managed to make it to the end of the parallel bars and collapsed into his chair. “You’re a slave driver.”

 

“That might be true,” Louisa acknowledged. “And you’re not the first to say so. There comes a point where you’ll push yourself too far, Jim.”

 

Jim shrugged. “It’s not too far if I walk again.”

 

“And I’m going to make sure that you do walk, if it’s at all possible,” Louisa countered. “But there is a certain point when physical therapy becomes counterproductive.”

 

“And I’m at that point?”

 

“You’re at that point today,” Louisa countered. “Enjoy the long weekend, rest up, and come back on Monday ready to go.”

 

“You’re the boss,” Jim replied.

 

Louisa smiled at him. “And don’t you forget it.”

 

Jim turned in his chair, and then said, “Look, straight answer—am I getting out of this chair?”

 

“Will you get out of it? Yes, I believe you will,” Louisa replied. “Will you walk unaided? That I don’t know.”

 

He liked that Louisa always cut right to the heart of the matter, and she never gave him any bullshit. Because the truth was that whether Jim walked again or not, they were never going to let him be a cop again, not after two months in the psych ward, not when just about everybody thought he’d had a psychotic break.

 

Well, almost everybody. Steadman didn’t agree with the diagnosis, and Simon had Jim’s back, no matter how little he understood.

 

And, of course, there was Blair.

 

Jim transferred himself to his truck with an ease born of practice. Maybe he should have bought a different car, one a little lower to the ground, but he’d been determined not to change anything he didn’t have to—that was why he’d kept the loft and outfitted the truck with hand controls. That was why he’d worked so hard to build up his strength, and slept on the couch.

 

Jim had lost so much that he wasn’t willing to give up anything else.

 

PT always left Jim wrung out, and he’d learned to keep something easy on hand in the fridge that he could heat and eat. Tonight, it was soup and bread from the deli around the corner, a thick, savory ham and bean that was mild enough not to bother his senses, and a tangy sourdough that was a pleasure to his taste buds.

 

Granted, with Sandburg’s help, he wasn’t having nearly as much trouble with taste; hearing still caused problems, and he zoned on sight and touch far too often. Smell sometimes spiked, too, but the exercises were working.

 

Jim looked at Sandburg’s tests like a kind of physical therapy. The more he worked at it, the better he’d get, and he was motivated to get better.

 

He barely managed to eat and rinse his dishes before transferring to the couch and falling asleep immediately. The ringing of the phone woke him, and he immediately noted the lateness of the hour. The loft was dark, lit only by the weak ambient light from the moon and streetlights outside.

 

To Jim, everything was clear as daylight; that part was still pretty cool.

 

Picking up the phone, Jim growled, “Ellison.”

 

“Jim, it’s Simon. We’ve got a problem, and I thought you’d want to know.”

 

Jim frowned, not liking Simon’s tone. “What happened?”

 

“It’s Blair,” Simon said. “There was a fire at his place.”

 

Jim had never been to Blair’s place, because there was no elevator, and it was easier for Jim to stop by the university, or for Blair to come to Jim.

 

“How bad?” he asked succinctly.

 

“He’s being treated and will be released shortly,” Simon replied. “His injuries were minor, but I don’t think he has anywhere to go.”

 

“Where is he now?”

 

“Signing paperwork at the hospital,” Simon replied.

 

“Bring him over here,” Jim said with a sigh.

 

There was no way he was going to leave Blair out on the street, not after everything Blair had done for him over the last few months. Jim didn’t like the idea of sharing his space, but he liked the idea of leaving a debt unpaid even less.

 

Jim didn’t do clutter, so there was nothing to pick up, but he glanced at the stairs uncertainly. He hadn’t changed the sheets since his accident, and he couldn’t even remember what the state of the loft was. Blair hadn’t been up there at all, so whatever it was like, it was going to be a surprise.

 

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Jim muttered. “He’ll just have to deal with it.”

 

~~~~~

 

Blair had been incredibly grateful when Simon showed up at the hospital. “Hey,” he said from behind the oxygen mask the doctor insisted he wear. “You didn’t have to come down.”

 

“One of the uniforms at the scene called me,” Simon replied, chewing on a cigar. “Have you called Jim yet?”

 

Blair winced. “Are you kidding? He’d just worry. They’re going to release me soon, so obviously I’m fine.”

 

“I was told you stayed in the building to get a couple of people out,” Simon countered.

 

Blair shifted uneasily. He still wasn’t sure what Simon thought about him. The gruff exterior showed absolutely no cracks he could see, and Blair got the feeling Simon had agreed to give him an observer’s pass out of some sense of guilt. He thought Simon might feel responsible for what had happened to Jim, and anything Jim asked for, Simon would give him, if at all possible.

 

“Mrs. Baker has arthritis,” Blair finally replied. “I knew she’d need help.”

 

Simon shook his head. “It’s probably a good thing you’re not partnered with Jim,” he muttered. “You two would just get into trouble. I want a straight answer, Sandburg: how bad is it?”

 

“Smoke inhalation, a couple of second degree burns, some bruises,” Blair said, neglecting to mention the two bruised ribs.

 

Simon glowered. “And?”

 

Blair sighed. “Two bruised ribs.”

 

“And?”

 

“Maybe a headache,” he admitted. “But no concussion.”

 

Simon shook his head. “You know, I’m going to talk to your doctor. Don’t even think about moving.”

 

Blair kept sucking back oxygen, wondering whether his student insurance was going to cover his hospital visit, and whether his renter’s insurance was up to date. He thought it was; he’d been pretty careful about that after the explosion at the warehouse.

 

Still, the expenses associated with replacing the things that had to be replaced, the bills, the deposit on a new place…

 

Looked like he’d be sleeping in his office for a while. Good thing the rec center on campus had showers.

 

“All right,” Simon announced as he reappeared in Blair’s cubicle. “I talked to the doctor, and you can leave. I’ll drive you wherever you need to go.”

 

“Campus is good,” Blair replied wearily, pulling the mask off of his face.

 

Simon snorts. “Forget it, kid. I talked to the doctor, and he doesn’t want you to be alone for the first night, and I already called Jim.”

 

“No, man,” Blair protested. “I don’t want to be a burden on him.”

 

Simon shook his head. “You got a lot to learn about Jim, Sandburg. Trust me on this one. Did you manage to get anything out of your apartment?”

 

“I didn’t have time.”

 

“Thought so,” Simon said. “Well, I’ll call the fire marshal tomorrow to see if you can get in. Until then, I’m sure you’ll make do.”

 

Blair shrugged, then winced. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. But seriously, I can go back to campus.”

 

“Not in this lifetime,” Simone replied. “Shake a leg, Sandburg.”

 

Blair knew better than to argue with that, and he was too tired to try. “Yeah, whatever.”

 

He dozed off on the way to Jim’s place, and Simon had to shake him awake. “I’ll walk you up,” Simon said.

 

“You don’t have to,” Blair protested half-heartedly.

 

“I have to make sure you get there safely,” Simon replied. “Call it a paternal instinct.”

 

“Hey, I’ve never had a father,” Blair replied. “And I don’t need one now.”

 

“So you say,” Simon grumbled. “And yet I’m here. Come on, let’s go.”

 

The elevator was working today, for which Blair gave silent and sincere thanks. He was also silently thankful for Simon’s hand under his elbow, because he was still shaky on his feet. Simon raised his hand to knock, and the door opened.

 

“Hey,” Jim said. “Come on in.”

 

“I’ve got a few things to do,” Simon replied. “My duty is done. Jim, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Jim shrugged and wheeled backwards. “I guess you will.”

 

Blair entered the loft cautiously. “Sorry about this.”

 

“You’ll probably have to change the sheets,” Jim replied. “Not sure how long they’ve been on the bed, actually.”

 

Blair eyed the stairs warily. “Yeah, okay, although I honestly don’t care about clean sheets at this point.”

 

“No, you probably don’t,” Jim said. “I can grab you a clean towel if you want to get cleaned up first, or you can just go on up.” He paused. “Unless you want a drink or something.”

 

Blair had been at Jim’s place half a dozen times before, and Jim had never been this stiff. “This is an imposition,” Blair said. “I’m sorry Simon called you, but—”

 

“No, it’s just—” Jim took a deep breath and sighed. “I haven’t cleaned up there since before.”

 

Jim’s mouth twisted unhappily, and Blair wondered if his discomfort had something to do with Blair being able to go where he couldn’t, into a space which belonged completely to that past Jim, who could have taken the stairs three at a time.

 

Not that Blair had seen him do it, but Jim looked like he’d been that kind of guy.

 

“I don’t have to sleep up there,” Blair said. “I can sleep on the floor.”

 

“Not when there’s a perfectly good bed upstairs,” Jim said. “It’s okay, really. You know me. Unexpected events tend to send me for a loop. So, shower?”

 

Blair was about to say that he’d just go on up, but he realized that he reeked of smoke, and it was probably bothering Jim’s sensitive nose. “Shower, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Make yourself at home.” Jim pointed out the stack of clean towels and said, “There should be a new toothbrush under the sink. Use whatever you find. I’ll see if I can get something for you to wear.”

 

Blair thought about his current predicament as he stood under the spray, wondering if he had any favors left to burn through after the last time he’d needed to stay on friends’ couches.

 

The truth was, it hadn’t been that long ago, although it was before he’d met Jim, so Jim was the only friend he hadn’t hit up for a place to stay in the last six months.

 

Blair had no idea what he’d done to warrant this kind of bad karma, but he hoped his luck got better before he was out on the streets.

 

But Jim had seemed okay with Blair staying, and if Blair demonstrated how helpful—and what a good roommate—he could be, he might be able to stretch it out for a week.  That would hopefully be enough time to get his insurance check and find a room somewhere. It wouldn’t have to be much.

 

He was half asleep when he stumbled out of the bathroom, but managed to mutter a good night in Jim’s general direction.

 

“Go to bed, Sandburg,” Jim replied, his voice an amused rumble. “Sleep yourself out.”

 

He woke up well after noon, the sharp edge of exhaustion somewhat blunted, and wandered downstairs. Jim was nowhere in sight, but there was a key in the middle of the table, which made Blair smile.

 

Blair had a few errands to run, and he wasn’t sure what time Jim would be home, but he thought he might be able to cook Jim a nice dinner. He didn’t have a lot of spare cash, but he had enough for a few groceries.

 

After talking to the fire marshal, Blair got the unwelcome news that parts of the building were structurally unsound, although his apartment hadn’t been damaged quite as badly as others.

 

“One of my guys can probably help you pick up what can be salvaged tomorrow,” Obink told Blair. “But we’re still looking things over right now.”

 

Blair sighed, not terribly surprised. “Was it arson?”

 

“I can’t discuss an ongoing investigation,” Obink replied. “But I talked to Captain Banks earlier, and he said you were okay, so I’ll say that we’re treating it as a suspicious fire.”

 

“Thanks, man,” Blair said sincerely. “Should I call you tomorrow?”

 

“I’ll have my investigator call you before he goes over,” Obink replies. “Sorry about this, Mr. Sandburg. You’ve got a place to stay, right? I can give you some numbers of organizations that help folks out after a fire.”

 

“I’m good,” Blair replied. “Thanks.”

 

He probably could use the assistance, but there were other people in his building who were going to need it a lot more, and Blair knew he could scrape by.

 

Blair took the bus back to his building to pick up his car, and was grateful when it turned over without a protest.

 

“Come on, karma,” Blair muttered. His emergency money covered enough clothes from a thrift store to get him by until he could (hopefully) retrieve his clothes and get them washed.

 

He found a couple of fortuitous sales at the grocery store, and decided to throw together a stir fry that would be full of flavor, but easy on a Sentinel’s sense of taste.

 

He’d finished the meat and had the rice cooking while he sautéed the vegetables when Jim entered.

 

Blair wasn’t sure what he was expecting Jim to say, but it wasn’t what came out of Jim’s mouth. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

Blair frowned. “I’m making dinner. What does it look like I’m doing?”

 

“I don’t need your fucking charity,” Jim said harshly, wheeling himself inside, the door slamming behind him. He moved into the living room and stopped with his back to Blair. “I can fucking take care of myself!” he added, his voice rising.

 

Blair just blinked, too stunned to immediately reply, and tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. Jim’s reaction was so out of proportion that Blair couldn’t begin to respond. He finally turned the heat off under the vegetables and decided that the rice could go another couple of minutes.

 

Jim’s shoulders were heaving, and Blair thought he might have been just a little scared of Jim’s anger if Jim hadn’t been in a chair.

 

And suddenly Blair got it—Jim was completely unused to sharing his space, and he fought for his independence every day. His disability and his out of control senses meant he could lose what little he had left at any moment. Any incursion into his territory was going to be met with anger.

 

“Jim?”

 

Jim’s shoulders shook, as though he was breathing hard—or crying—and a heavy silence fell. “I’m sorry,” Jim said after a long minute.

 

Blair hesitated, and then said, “I just wanted to say thank you for letting me crash here last night.”

 

Jim glanced over his shoulder. “I’m not a total asshole. I wouldn’t have made you sleep in your office.”

 

Blair chuckled. “How did you know?”

 

“Not hard to guess,” Jim replied. “I used to be a detective, remember?”

 

There was a bitter twist to his smile, and Blair felt his heart sink. “Where were you today?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

 

“The doctor,” Jim admitted. “Regular progress report.”

 

“And?”

 

Jim shook his head slightly. “You know, I was thinking that maybe you could stay here until you’re back on your feet. I could use help getting the other bedroom set up.”

 

Blair took a couple of steps towards Jim and then stopped, bracing himself against the table, when he realized that Jim probably wouldn’t appreciate Blair’s attempt at comfort. “What did he say?”

 

“She,” Jim corrected absently. “And she just confirmed what my physical therapist said. I’m not going to be using the loft any time soon.”

 

“But you’re going to walk again,” Blair insisted.

 

Jim shook his head. “Maybe. I’m not progressing as fast as the doctor had hoped. She thinks I might walk with a cane—if I’m lucky.”

 

Blair swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m sorry you got saddled with a defective Sentinel,” Jim replied.

 

“You’re not defective!” Blair insisted hotly. “Fuck, man, you’re…” He trailed off, because he might admire Jim a hell of a lot, but he didn’t want that to be misconstrued, especially when he was going to be staying with Jim for a while. “You’re probably a hell of a lot stronger than I’d be in your shoes.”

 

“I doubt that,” Jim replied. “So, you in?”

 

Blair took a deep breath. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you need. It shouldn’t be more than a week.”

 

Jim smirked. “Are you waiting for a check from the insurance company?”

 

“Yeah,” Blair admitted. “After the drug lab next door exploded, I made sure I had it.”

 

Jim shook his head. “You’re a menace, Sandburg. Anyway, the point is that you never know how long the insurance is going to take to go through. So, stay as long as you need. Help me get the spare livable, and we’ll call it rent.”

 

Blair frowned. “I didn’t know you had a second bedroom.”

 

“Right now, it’s a storage closet,” Jim admitted, "but that’s mostly because I haven’t needed it for anything else, and I didn’t want to—” He faltered. “You can stay in the loft.”

 

“Jim—”

 

“Don’t,” he said shortly, and Blair knew that territory was off-limits. “It’s okay.”

 

Blair nodded. “Okay. I’m going to take your word for that. Now, are you hungry?”

 

“I could eat,” Jim admitted.

 

“Did you get lunch?”

 

“I wasn’t hungry then.”

 

“You are in for a treat, my friend,” Blair announced. “Completely Sentinel friendly, and yet full of flavor.”

 

Jim chuckled and wheeled himself just inside the kitchen. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

 

Blair completed his preparations, finishing off the vegetables, adding the sauce—already prepped, thank goodness—and tossing in the meat to reheat. He loaded up a plate for Jim and handed it to him before he did the same for himself.

 

Jim wheeled himself to the living room, and began digging in. “This is good.”

 

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” Blair replied. “I’ll remind you that you still haven’t cooked for me.”

 

Jim managed a smile. “I’ll make my special marinara for you sometime,” he promised.

 

“You’re on,” Blair said. “So, if I’m going to be staying for a while, do you have any house rules?”

 

Jim’s smile turned wide and genuine. “Tell you what—I’ll make a list.”