Rated PG  (a wee bit of language)
Acknowledgement: Samuel Johnson--the opening quote (many thanks to those who searched far and wide, trying to locate the source); Louisa May Alcott--closing quotation

Spoilers: The Debt and Cypher (this story is set shortly after the latter)

Thanks to Kathleen and patl, my Blessed Betas. You girls are the greatest!  Any errors are mine alone.

This is for Agnes, of course, whose warm friendship is always a comfort against the cold.
This is also for Beth, Angie and Shycat. Thanks for welcoming me into the fold and making me feel at home!
 
 

Warm Fuzzies

Iris Wilde




We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last one drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

Blair ran his finger along the edge of the card. It said it all and said it well, but would Jim think it too sentimental? He didn't want to embarrass his friend with effusive praise or flowery expressions, but he felt the need to say "thank you" with something more concrete than spoken words. Jim would wave it off, dismiss it as unnecessary, but the Sentinel had done so much for him in the weeks since their initial meeting. So much.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~~

When Jim reluctantly opened his home to Blair, the deal was for a week's stay. It would be plenty of time for Blair to find a new "apartment" to replace his former residence, rendered unlivable due to its unfortunate locale and not through any fault of his own. After all, Blair hadn't known about the meth lab operating on the opposite side of the ten-inch thick concrete wall, nor had he expected the entire warehouse to be blown to hell and back in the explosion that had ripped through it.

So Jim graciously allowed him to set up temporary digs in a spare room, and even helped him secure a small futon, a notable improvement over the monstrously ugly red sofa Blair had slept on at the warehouse. Tried to sleep, actually. Lumpy cushions, a creaky base, and three demonic springs had prevented many a good night's rest. Jim's loaner did much to improve Blair's early morning pre-caffeine attitude.

Though an inconvenience, the older man did not complain...well, much...when Blair brought along his own "roommate," Larry the Barbary ape, despite Larry's unique ape odor and incessant ape noises. The combination was torturous to Jim's sentinel senses, newly discovered and barely controlled, but the older man did little more than cast long-suffering glances in Blair's general direction. Neither did Jim rage...well, much...when Larry broke loose from his cage and effectively trashed the loft. In fact, he remained quite calm considering the magnitude of the damage, and even helped Blair recapture the television-addicted simian and turn him over to animal control without firing a single shot.

Blair expected the ax to fall after that incident and watched for evidence of imminent eviction--packed boxes, a stripped bed, a note nailed to the front door--yet the deadline passed without acknowledgement from the detective. Still, Blair daily searched the newspaper and perused the ads posted in the student center, but to no avail. It wasn't as if he was asking for the Taj Mahal; the warehouse had been cold and damp, and he'd grown accustomed to the snap-cracks of triggered rat traps. But after a week in the loft, the thought of returning to anything similar to his previous existence caused a near-physical ache within his chest, centered in the general vicinity of his heart. It would be difficult to return to famine after a feast.

He couldn't explain it. He had lived with the most primitive of cultures, survived on less than the bare necessities, and considered it adventurous. Like his mother, he had flitted from place to place and person to person, unfettered and rootless, unencumbered by the ties of permanency and intimacy. He was a free spirit!

Why then did his inevitable defection from Jim's domain bother him? Why did he suddenly crave this stability? Why the desire for a homeport?

Home. The word had never held much meaning for him...until now. Home had been a noun only in two respects. It was a place where he sometimes hid to avoid the pressures of academic life, and it was a thing that contained essential furnishings: a desk and chair for study, something soft on which to sleep, a television for those rare free moments, and a refrigerator, preferably stocked.

But now home encompassed the full definition of a noun. It was an idea and an emotion, synonymous with words like "security" and "joy." And it was a person. Home was Jim.

But all good things must come to an end, and he forced his mind to accept it, to prepare for the day when Jim would say, "Look, Chief, I don't want to pressure you, but..."

Only that day never came. Jim harped about Blair's lack of domesticity and order, but not once did he imply that Blair had overstayed his welcome. Perhaps the Sentinel felt obligated to remain silent, a way to reimburse Blair for the time and effort he contributed to helping Jim control his wayward senses. Or perhaps he just didn't want to make the first move, expecting that Blair would pick up on some barely noticeable insinuation and make the connection himself.

So Blair found himself reading between the lines. Every admonishment held a double meaning. "Don't leave your stuff lying around the living room, Sandburg." ("You're invading my space.") "Turn that jungle music down a bit, Chief." ("I miss the peace and quiet of living alone.") "What time will you be back?" ("I want to know how long I have the place to myself...the way it used to be.")

Finally, Blair could no longer handle walking the razor's edge of uncertainty. He would take everything out of Jim's hands and make his move--verbally and literally. Some friends agreed to store his belongings, and the small cot in his basement office would serve him adequately until a more acceptable dwelling could be found. He practiced his speech, one guaranteed to alleviate guilt, spare feelings, and protect dignity. He marked a date on his calendar and waited with silent dread.

David Lash. He hadn't figured Lash into the equation. Thoughts of relocation were forgotten. First Blair became so focused on helping Jim with the case that all else slipped into the background. Then the case took a personal turn and it was all he could do to maintain his sanity.

His memory of that night was foggy in some areas, brutally sharp in others. He'd never realized that blood could actually freeze, but there was no other explanation for the horrible cold that began in the pit of his stomach and spread throughout his body, working in tandem with the drug Lash had forced down his throat to paralyze him. Even the sight of Jim, jaw set, gun in hand, did nothing to thaw him, and his heart, a solid block of ice, had threatened to shatter into a million pieces when the rescue attempt went horribly wrong. Blair watched helplessly as both Sentinel and psycho crashed through a glass partition and plunged through rotting floorboards, disappearing from his sight.

Frantic, he drew upon his last reserve of strength and lunged from the dentist's chair only to crumple to the floor, the manacles on his ankles and his drug-induced stupor proving too much. He lay there, surrounded by trophies from four stolen lives and candlelight-cast shadows, willing his body to move and praying for Jim's safety. Then came a quick succession of five shots, and the creeping freeze invaded his brain. He slammed his eyelids shut, trying to block out hellish reality, but the images bombarded the darkness within.

Who had been on the receiving end of those bullets? Was Jim hurt? Dying? Would Lash return to finish him off? Would his last moment of life be spent gazing up through the water at the distorted visage of a madman?

The sound of footfalls in the hallway sent what was left of his mind scrambling for cover in a far corner of his skull. He heard someone enter the room, but his eyes remained closed. He had no desire to see the Angel of Death approaching. Hands touched him, turned him onto his back...the ripping of velcro and a rustle of cloth, then something was placed across him...hands were placed on either side of his face...gentle hands, followed by a gentle voice.

"Chief?"

What followed was a blur. Jim, Simon, sirens, flashing lights, Jim, paramedics, a blanket, Jim, "How many fingers am I holding..," Jim, "...hospital..," "...no..," "But..," Jim, "No," Simon's car, Jim, Jim...Jim.

Once they were back at the loft Blair was confronted by destruction worthy of Larry, but much more insidious. He wanted to help with the clean up, but Jim insisted that he go straight to bed. It made sense, considering that he was unable to stand for more than a few seconds at a time before he began to sway. It made sense, but he didn't want to go to bed...to sleep...perchance to dream.

"I can be you." A face, flaming eyes, a raspy whisper. His body jerked, waking him, and he squinted against the glow from his bedside lamp. He'd left it on, hoping that the light would chase away the inner demons as readily as it dispelled those without. No such luck. He tugged his blanket up further around his neck--God, he was so cold--and burrowed his face into his pillow.

The second was worse. Lash yanked him from the chair, dragged him through the trash-littered hallway and down two flights of stairs, then half-carried him to the edge of a nearby pond, all the while chatting about baths and ducks and yellow scarves. Blair struggled within the man's surprisingly powerful grip...and woke to find Jim sitting beside him, his hands gripping Blair's arms, shaking him and calling his name in a quiet but commanding voice. The concern reflected in the older man's sapphire eyes touched him, and he felt something inside give, a shifting in the glacial ice. He answered Jim's queries with mumbled replies...yes, he was okay...no, he didn't need anything...no, Jim didn't need to sit with him. The final comment had sounded unconvincing to his own ears.

The third nightmare was his last. He couldn't remember it, but he knew it had been terrifying in the extreme. The fear he'd felt was an entity, a physical presence determined to shred his sanity, to shove him over the precipice and into hell. But as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. Something banished the fear and pulled him back from the edge; something wrapped him in security and tenderness.

His eyes remain closed, still draped in sleep's soft cloak, but his other senses detected definite changes. There was pressure along the back side of his body, an oddity considering he was sleeping on his side, and something grasped him around the upper torso, something that did not restrain, but encompassed. A soft, moist breeze brushed through his hair and past his ear at regular intervals, and a familiar scent surrounded him. He knew, yet he opened his eyes to confirm.

Jim still wore the long-sleeved teal sweater he'd pulled on before sending Blair to bed. It stood out in stark contrast to the buttercream comforter--Jim's comforter--which covered them both. His own arms were trapped beneath the plush cotton, held there by Jim's encircling arm, the same which also anchored Blair to his partner's solid, muscular form.

Faint unease bordered on embarrassment. He must have been pretty far gone if Jim had felt his only recourse was to join him on the bed, to hold him as he would a frightened child.

Blair's face warmed, and his heart pounded as questions whirled through his brain. Had he screamed? Cried? What must this tough-as-nails cop have been thinking as he watched Blair thrash about, caught in the throes of a full-blown night terror? How could he ever look Jim in the face after this?

Blair gasped, envisioning future humiliation, then froze as Jim shifted and stirred behind him. There was a barely discernible mumble, "I'm here, Chief," then Jim's arm tightened around him, tucking him in closer. The older man's breath now danced across the top of Blair's head, and the larger body aligned itself to mold perfectly to Blair's smaller frame.

The heat in Blair's face shifted to his heart. He was wrong. Jim's gesture had not been made out of exasperation or pity or duty. It was simply to comfort and reassure. Jim was doing what came naturally, sheltering him, even if it meant that Blair needed to be protected from his own haunted subconscious. The ice around his heart melted, and he closed his eyes against the torrent of water that filled them, fearing his tears would disturb the man who held him. He took a few deep breaths to relax, and when the fingers of exhaustion tugged he went willingly. If the nightmares returned, Jim would be there.

As he drifted off an ancient title came unbidden to his thoughts: Blessed Protector. He yawned, made a mental note to tell Jim about it in the morning, then allowed sleep to envelop him.

A week later, after spending Saturday afternoon at Rainier grading tests, he walked into the loft...and his world crashed down around him. Boxes littered the area outside of his room, and beside them, in an untidy little pile, were his sheets. He stood by the door, unable to move, the sight before him accomplishing what Lash's elixir had failed to do. The distant cold exploded back into his body, nearly sending him to his knees. He couldn't draw a single breath and blood pounded in his ears. He barely noticed the figure emerging from his room--no, not his anymore--and it took him a few moments to realize it was speaking to him.

"...bought it from Mrs. Gunderson. It's not new, but it's sturdy and in good shape." The figure stood beside him now, and he felt compelled to look at it. His confusion must have been evident. "You didn't hear a word I said, did you?"

"Huh?" One syllable, and hardly worthy of a college grad student, but it was the best he could manage.

The figure snorted. "One more time. I put a bookshelf in your room, one I bought from Mrs. Gunderson. There's plenty of space for your books and a few of those ugly thingies you call artifacts."

Blair took a shallow breath; that explained the boxes. But what about the--

"Oh, and I picked up some sheets for you today. They're flannel, so they'll keep you warmer than the regular cotton ones. You won't have much use for them after next month because the weather will be too warm, but they'll come in handy this fall and winter. We'll just pack them away with the heavy clothes." Jim turned toward the door and patted Blair's stomach as he brushed past him. "I've got to get the laundry. Why don't you rustle us up some lunch?"

The loft door closed with a tiny snick, and Blair was left alone.

Fall and winter? He'd planned to broach the subject of their living arrangement again, had prepared to move with no hard feelings--Jim had done so much for him. Now it was a dead issue. Fall and winter, followed by spring, then maybe another summer...

Blair blinked and found himself at the entry to the room...his room. He walked through the doorway and glanced around as if it were his first time inside. He stopped by his bed and slowly lowered himself to it, grateful for its familiarity. He pulled back the neatly arranged covers--Jim's doing, since Blair usually just pulled them up, fluffed the pillow, and flew out the door--back, back...there! Earth tones, muted but eye pleasing, that blended well with his blankets and vast pillow collection. He ran his hand across the flat sheet, smiling at the feel of the cloud-soft material. Thick, plush...expensive. Jim hadn't purchased these from the clearance section of a discount store. He'd given it some thought, considered colors and textures, and had opted for the best. The tongues of ice that glazed the periphery of his heart vanished and warmth flowed through him. He felt tingly, as if his entire body had fallen asleep and sensation was gradually returning. His hand trembled slightly as he continued to stroke the soft flannel. Home.

~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair read the card once more. A series of kindnesses. Water in a vessel. One final drop. A set of flannel sheets. "Stay" is such a charming word in a friend's vocabulary. He smiled as the words floated through his head. Yes, it was, but sometimes actions spoke louder than words. He smiled, bounced on the balls of his feet, then fairly skipped to the checkout counter, card in hand.

~~~~~~~~~~finis~~~~~~~~~~

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