Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Pet Fly, UPN, and The SciFi Channel. The story is my own, and I earn no money from it.
Summary: Chronicle of a cold foretold.
Warnings: Coarse language.
Author's notes: Takes place soon after S2P2, before TSbyBS. See end of story for more notes.
Sick and Tired
I once heard my partner memorably compared to a cocker spaniel on speed, and there are mornings when his hair is definitely poodle-esque. But really he's 100% pit bull--brave, loyal, fiercely determined and, currently, right up in my face.
"Goddammit, Jim! You don't have a say in this. We made an agreement last week, and this is quite frankly the outcome I was expecting, so back off!"
He's angry, invading my space to intimidate me. Which, strangely enough, generally works. He's the only man I can think of who physically pushes me around with my tacit permission. Because, let's face it: pit bull though he is, he wouldn't have a hope of physically intimidating me if I didn't permit it.
Our agreement last week--well, I don't remember 'agreeing' as such. He laid it on the line: "This is what I have to do. I've dropped everything I can, and this is the workload that I'm--that we're stuck with. It's up to you to figure out the rest."
He was right, it was my place to make concessions then. He had dropped two of his volunteer activities, an act that obviously pained him. He had started saying no to colleagues who needed his help. But his time was still booked solid. What with grading, teaching, one remaining volunteer responsibility-- "There's no way I'm leaving Mrs.Phillips now, Jim. You're going to have to wait till she dies to get that time." And unfortunately that might be pretty soon. No, I didn't want to convince him to end his kindness to an old woman whom he loved and who loved him, especially not when just the thought of her death made him look so desperate.
But I wanted him to get some sleep. He was running himself ragged, because on top of all the many stresses of being a grad student--and I had no idea how they lived before meeting Sandburg: didn't the Geneva convention get them any rights?--he's also my de facto partner.
Hell, he's my real partner, whether he's a cop or not. He's there by my side for the rough stuff, which lately has been pretty intense. Not that the case is so tough. We've been running down background information on a possible smuggler--artifacts, not guns or drugs, so less likely to end up in violence. There have been long days, yes, but nothing we haven't been through before.
Except that, suddenly and for no reason that either of us can figure out, I'm zoning. Some are little zones--just fading out on a failed attempt to find something off, something wrong in my environment. And recently I've had longer zones--this morning deep enough that Sandburg was frantic by the time he managed to wake me up, long after my near-silent alarm should have shoved me out of sleep.
So how can I argue with his main point in the great schedule-shifting debate? "Jim, this is all I can do. The rest is up to you. As long as you're zoning, you can't be in the field alone. No, don't argue with me. I'm the world's foremost--okay, only--leading expert on Sentinels, plus I'm your guide. You're not going out without backup. Stakeouts especially, man. So figure out what you can drop or deal with me coming along. Because I'm not letting you out there on your own, and you're not guilting me into dropping anything else." And in all honesty, I realize he doesn't have much else to drop. What's he going to give up, sleeping? Eating? He doesn't have enough time for either of those anyway.
Which, of course, is the big problem. Because although I know he has to be out there with me as long as I'm zoning, I also know he needs to take a break. He's running himself ragged right now, and the sight of his bloodshot, dark-circled eyes is getting to be physically painful. I blink when I look at him.
So I can't work without backup. And I can't keep him up for another night of stakeout. It's time to compromise.
"Considering your current attitude, your date isn't missing a thing. He should thank me."
I'm probably lucky we're stuck in this dumpster, because if she could get to me, Conner would undoubtedly kick my ass for that. Hell, she'd have kicked my ass an hour ago, when I made the unfortunate decision that got us knee-deep in refuse outside the alleged smugglers' headquarters.
"I don't know what you do on your dates, Ellison, but believe it or not, dumpster-diving was not in my original plans for the evening." I don't really need the sight of her clenched teeth to remind me of what an asshole I'm being.
But I'm worried about Sandburg; I need my guide and partner; and there's no sign of the smugglers yet. And I'm up to my ass in rotten, stinking refuse. My mouth goes into gear with absolutely no go-ahead from the brain. "Well, it's your sunny flexibility in the face of the unexpected that we've all grown to love, mate."
Conner finally snaps. She hisses, "I'll show you flexibility, mate" and proceeds to do so. Actually, I have to give her points for both flexibility and tolerance, since she's able to kick me now and, therefore, must have refrained from kicking me earlier.
Luckily for our future working relationship (what's left of it), we are suddenly involved in a crosstown footrace. During the collar, Conner takes out no more frustration on the smugglers than is needed, and I would admire her forbearance except that I'm pretty sure she just doesn't want to settle for second best. As an apology, I wonder if there's any way that I could resist arrest--give her an outlet for the simmering exasperation I've admittedly provoked all evening.
At the station, Conner takes one parting shot. "I've revised my earlier impression of Sandy. I thought he was a pretty good cop for an observer. Now I know he's a pretty good cop for a saint. Get your partner backing you up again, all right Ellison? Because I'd hate for Major Crimes to be out a saintly observer and a pigheaded, prickly, jackass of a detective."
That's an improvement; at least she's calling Sandburg my partner now, not my babysitter. Speaking of which, it's high time I went home and checked on the kid. I'll get to tell him that, despite sirens, smugglers and garbage, I didn't zone once. Wonder if he'll be more pleased or confused?
I showered and changed at the station, so I don't have to pause as I park the truck and head up to the loft. Stretching out my hearing tentatively (I turned it down a bit on the ride home because, although I deserve Conner's lecture, I don’t care to listen) I search for my guide.
Judging by the sound of the rustling booklets, I figure he's in his room grading papers. Damn, I'd hoped he might be sleeping.
I push open the door, quickly cataloguing the sound of his heartbeat and breathing…he's…
…sound… "Damn it, Jim! Come on, man. Come on back. What is it this time, huh? Come on, you just walked in. My dinner? Just leftovers; nothing to zone you out there. Lights are nice and low. No music on or anything. Come on, that's right, follow me back. Follow my voice; you're home now; it's safe. Come on back, Jim."
"Come on back, yeah, that's it. Back you come. That's right."
Suddenly I'm back; I'm home, safe, just like he said I was. What the hell…?
"Oh man, Jim. Welcome back. Don't tell me you did that while you were out there, okay, because I cannot deal with the guilt. Does Megan know enough to pull you out? Did she do okay? I mean, you came back so she did okay, right?" He's checking me out visually and physically this whole time; I'm glad Conner restrained herself and kicked me somewhere that doesn't show. "Any landing you can walk away from, right Jim? Shit…is Megan okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine. I didn't zone."
"Uh, I hate to break it to you, but yeah, you did, Jim." He's grinning up at me, half wise-ass and half worried.
"Now, yes. On the stakeout, no. Four hours in a cold truck with an angry Aussie, sixty minutes in a really foul dumpster, two hours of chase and arrest--no zone."
"Oh. Well good. Good, obviously. But you zoned just now."
"Brilliant observation, Darwin." I'm still tired, still pissed, and, at least to myself, I still stink. He just slits his eyes at me in a daunting glare.
"Well, unless your goal is to become a sort of flesh-toned Rodin--a massive, cranky doorstop--I think you should help me figure out what's going on."
"When I hired you, I was told you were an expert in the field." I smirk at him, glad that he doesn't have Conner's skills.
"I haven't been able to keep up with the training courses. Now, what's been the common theme here? You zoned a couple of times on the last stakeout, a couple of small ones in the bullpen, twice in the truck when we were hunting down witnesses--something with the job?"
"Oh, yeah. Hell. So we've also had quite a few minor zones in the loft. And at least two major zones."
"Yeah. What time do you think it is, huh?"
"About two--" I glance at my watch and trail off in shock. I know I was parking the truck around two-fifteen. It's now past three. No wonder Sandburg looks so tired. "I zoned for almost an hour?"
"Pretty deep, too. Took me longer than I like to get you back. Of course, I didn't realize there was a problem at first. I was in my room 'till I felt a draft and came out to find you doing your famed totem-pole impression in the open doorway." His attempted joke falls flat in the face of the bleak anxiety in his eyes. "So we've got to figure this out, Jim. Because this is pretty serious."
Hell yeah, it's serious. 'Thou shalt not stand like a target with the loft door hanging open' is one of the top ten house rules. "So we're looking for a common theme?"
He shoots me a crooked smile. "Yeah. Not the location. Not the job." He's kind of ticking this off on his fingers now. "Timing? Shit, no, this morning and tonight. Anything on the scene--"
Watching him go through a list of my zones has me remembering them more clearly. "Well, you've been there each time."
He starts to comment, probably crack a joke, and then his voice kind of stumbles. I can see him freeze up, and the slightly sick-looking smile he pastes on doesn't come close to hiding the anxious dread in his eyes. For a second I don't get it, and then…
Alex. Damn the bitch to hell. I've seen his look before--it's when you've tossed the pin and realize you're left holding the grenade. He's staring at me with this pained fascination, like I might suddenly shove him into a box and ship him out. Like I might…I step towards him, and thank god thank god he doesn't step back. I think if he'd so much as flinched, something in me would have broken.
"It's not you, Chief. Can't be, since I have clear memories of you being around before this started." I also have some excruciatingly clear memories of him not being around. Nightmares of an ultimate lack of Sandburg, but I repress them quickly--partly because one of us needs to stay rational right now, but mostly because it's what I do.
The smile he answers with is kind of shaky, but I can deal with that. He's calming under my hands, his shoulders not quite as rigid as they had been just moments earlier. For a second I feel like I'm dealing with a wild animal, and I have to remind myself that this is the kid who got in my face and shouted me down earlier. He's not fragile--no one's going to break tonight.
He's leaning into my hands just the slightest bit, and I take the opportunity to do a quick scan. He's still tired; I could drown in his exhaustion. But his heart rate is okay, temperature fine, breathing…his breathing sounds…
…and I pull myself back from the edge of oblivion with a massive effort.
He winces under my grip but doesn't move. "What's up, Jim?"
"It's you." He stares at me in confusion, so I continue. "It is you. My zoning…I'm zoning on you." Before he can answer, I pull him in a little closer, practically chest to chest. If it were anyone but Sandburg, my squick-meter would be pegged. Hell, if it were anyone but Sandburg, I'd have punched him or kissed her by now. The standard guy rules don't seem to apply to my guide, and sometimes I have to remind myself that we even have personal space.
"You're the trigger, Chief. I can hear it--not you, but your breathing. It's right there, subaudible really. Like…" Damn, this isn't my area. "Like a memory of a sound. Or it's…something that's going to happen."
"What's going to happen?" Sandburg asks, his voice roughening in confusion.
Like I'm not trying to figure that out. What? That's the question, isn't it, and I'm going to flunk it if… "I think you're about to get sick."
He steps back, still holding onto my forearms. "Like puke sick?"
"No. Like…I can hear it, but not yet. Congestion in your lungs, kind of wheezing. You know you've got to be careful since--" He nods. He never makes me finish statements like that, which is a sign of genuine caring on his part, since I'd rather do almost anything than talk about it. It. His death. Shit. "I can hear you about to come down with something major."
I can tell he's torn between wanting to believe and clinging to a last remnant of normality in our lives. "So your senses are precognitive now?"
That's the way, Sandburg. Make it simple. "I think I'm having an auditory premonition." I went to college; I can throw this stuff around too.
Suddenly he's grinning at me like I just handed him a million bucks. Although he probably thinks this is better, crazy academic that he is. "Oh man. So you honestly think that you're sensing something that hasn't happened yet?" He doesn't wait for an answer, which is fine because I'd rather not repeat myself as I add one more footnote to my X-file. "That is so cool! Oh man, we've got to get a handle on this. I mean, is this a new sense you're developing, or is it a one-off, some sort of anomaly…" He continues his hypothesizing, not noticing as I maneuver him towards his room and push him down on his bed.
"…possibly a development in times of stress. I'll have to cross-reference your results to that time last year on vacation, which is still your best baseline, man, and if that isn't a sign that you're not cooperating with your guide, I don't know what is, but we take what we can get, so I'll run a few tests now, see how they compare…" I've got Sandburg under the covers now and have managed to get a couple of pillows under his head. He grabs at my arms as I straighten up.
"…and I know we're both tired, man, but we need to look into this…Jim?" He glances around in sudden confusion. "What am I doing in bed?"
"See, Junior, the mere fact that you have to ask indicates that you're out of practice at sleeping."
"No, but Jim, listen, we need to--"
"We need to sleep, Sandburg. You've been awake for the past couple of days, and I just got back from a really…tiring stakeout with Conner."
He grimaces. "I'm sorry, man, I didn't think. No, you go to bed, definitely; you need to sleep. I'll just put a little time in on this, because this is a big deal, if it's true, and--" the last words were muffled. I could give him trouble about mumbling, but I won't since my hand is over his mouth.
"You need to sleep even more than I do. You're going to sleep and drink liquids," that reminds me, and I reach over to his desk to grab a bottle of water he had left there, "and do whatever else is necessary so that you don't get sick."
"But I thought you said I was getting sick?" His bemused expression bugs me, because it's just another sign of how tired he is. What the hell were we thinking, letting it get this bad?
"Chief, what's the point of my being able to sense when you're about to get sick, if you just get sick anyway?" There's still far less comprehension in his gaze than I'd like, and I have to firmly prohibit myself from sighing in exasperation. "I'm not sensing that you are sick, just that you are going to be sick. But since I'm not going to let that happen, I guess I'm just sensing that you could be sick."
Still not a glimmer. "Dammit, Sandburg, don't you read science fiction? One of the infinite probabilities looping around us right now is that you're going to get sick. Really sick, probably pneumonia from the way it feels, and then I'm going to be sitting by your side at the hospital and neither of us are going to be getting any sleep!" He's just blinking up at me, and I consciously lower my voice again. "So do us both a favor, and go to sleep, okay?"
Finally he seems to understand. "You got it, Jim," he says, smiling sleepily at me as he snuggles down under the covers. I put the bottle of water on the floor within his reach. Turning to leave, I'm stopped momentarily by the sound of his sleep-slurred voice. "Thanks, Jim."
"No problem, Chief."
I'm already halfway to the bathroom when his voice reaches me again. "But tomorrow, man, we're doing some tests."
I should have known I wasn't getting the last word.
I wonder if Florence Nightingale ever wanted to smack her patients upside the head? Sandburg has been awake for less than an hour, and already I'm losing my grip on what little serenity the Sentinel-gods gave me.
"But Jim, listen, this is big! This is huge! And I need to test it, or it might be gone and then it's nothing. It's very important that we quantify this, get a new baseline, so that we have something to build on. And there's only so much I can do by merely observing. You know these tests, man, they're not that tough. If you'd just cooperate--" I let his voice fade out as I finish making up another pot of the truly noxious herbal mixture he has decided to entrust his health to. The only reason I'm going along with this is the chance that the virus will attempt suicide to escape the stench. As a Sentinel, I'm just forced to suck it up and turn it down.
"Thanks, Jim," he says as I hand him the mug, but he doesn't interrupt his overall flow of rationalization. "I don't want to go to the station with this hanging over us, so we need to run some quick tests now, okay?"
So that's the source of confusion. "You're not going into the station today, Chief."
"Oh no, man, not a chance. No way! I know that I'm probably the trigger for all of this, but how do we know if that'll continue to be true? How do we know that you won't zone trying to check on me, which I know you do when I'm sick, but which you're going to have a lot of trouble with if I'm at school?"
"Well, you're not going to be at school either; you're going to be here, resting." I hold up a hand to forestall debate. "And I'm going to be here, too." Finally, I seem to have shut him up. In celebration of this rare event, I throw him a bone. "We can do the tests later. Now I want you to sit there and grade papers until it's time for lunch. Then after your nap we'll consider some tests."
He splutters. "My…what? My nap? You setting out milk and cookies, too?"
I glance down at the tray I'm currently carrying. "Orange-juice and french toast." That buys me a few seconds of silence, and I take advantage of the gap in true Ranger fashion. "Eat this." He's staring up at me, so I gesture roughly at the food and give him my best interrogation glare. He grins.
"Okay, man, you win. I'm eating." He picks up his fork and then, in obvious contradiction to his last statement, continues talking. "But how come you're not going in to work?"
"I called Simon this morning. He agreed to give me a couple of days to catch up with our paperwork." Well, 'agreed' is a slight stretch. 'Finally gave in' is probably a better description. "As long as I can borrow your laptop, I can do that from here."
"Sure, no problem. Do you have any of the files here?"
"He's going to get Conner to drop them off on her way to interview the Hammonds." And I can't wait to see Conner again. Maybe
I can make it up to her a little. Walk with a pronounced limp when I answer the door, perhaps. Of course, considering my attitude
less than twelve hours ago, I probably need to fall on my face at her feet.
I stuck with the limp, and she seemed mollified to the point of near forgiveness when she left. Of course, the chance to fuss over Sandburg for a few minutes didn't hurt. It is cosmically unfair that a man who can shout me down one day gets to be mothered by beautiful women the next.
He's still grinning to himself an hour after her brief visit. Although, that may be because he's grading papers for the Social Ecology course he was conned into teaching. On the last test, he got some answers to his eco-feminism question that had him literally gasping with hysterical laughter. Since his lungs are my main worry right now, maybe I should get him to take a break.
He's shaking his head now, still smiling, and since I'm making less-than-speedy progress through the files, I allow myself a brief indulgence. I clear my throat; as expected, that's all it takes to get his attention and start him talking.
"Everything okay with the paperwork? Need any help? Translating my notes, maybe?" We're less than a day into the Overworked Guide's rest-cure, but already he's looking better. The dark circles under his eyes are still very much in evidence, though, and I quickly tally the hours remaining before I can plausibly persuade him to take a nap.
"The whole point to this exercise is that you get your work done, I get my work done, and we both get more rest. So you just stick to your grading, Chief, okay?"
"Well, that's not even difficult this time. I really think I'm getting through to them, you know? I'm getting some real good answers here." I look interested, and he continues gladly. "Like this one. She got all the theory right; I mean, she read stuff that wasn't even on the list, which is rare for an undergrad. But here at the end she's got this very polite diatribe against the whole theory."
Okay, I could have used a little more background on that. "What theory?"
"Oh, the Gaia theory. The one I told you about--"
"That the engineer objected to?" I remember the discussion, primarily because we were in a restaurant when Sandburg decided he needed to gesture dramatically to make his--and then his student's--points clearer. I'm just lucky I was drinking water and that the incriminating wet-spot faded by the time we got back to the office.
"Yeah, well this is her essay. She objects to the idea of earth as a teleological being, of course. But she's got this really--I don't know--kind of moving point about rationalism and science. I didn't think she had it in her to be anything other than supremely abrasive."
"Did many people pick that question?" Frankly, even before the impromptu bath, I found the idea pretty fruity. Anthropomorphizing the planet--of course, rational objections lose a little impact when they're coming from a guy who sees non-existent panthers. Or, for that matter, one who seems to have precognitive visions and, now, premonitory senses. I'm becoming the kind of fanciful foolishness I most dislike.
Sandburg shrugs. "More than I thought would choose it, to be honest. I think because it's memorable. I mean, considering that the other options included explaining the public participation ladder, I guess I shouldn't be surprised." He sighs as he glances over at the messy pile of booklets on the coffee-table. "The thought of twenty more, though…"
"Get back to grading. Stop interrupting my paperwork." He grins, secure in the knowledge that I'm all bark.
There is a full half-hour of relative quiet before he suddenly laughs out loud, narrowly avoiding snorting tea all over the essay on his lap. He chokes for a second as the liquid (lukewarm, luckily) goes down the wrong tube, and then he leans over, coughing into the handful of paper towels that I left on the table for just this sort of emergency. Not that I had any reason to believe he would snort tea at some point in the morning, but giving Sandburg something that foul to drink in the living room is just asking for trouble.
I force myself not to jump up and do something inane like pound him on the back. Instead, I wait for him to quit coughing and then look calmly over at him. He meets my eye and immediately dissolves into giggles.
"Oh man, Jim, don't look at me like that. I didn't get any on the couch." Or down his lungs, I'm glad to hear. "But listen, you've got to hear this one. This is Jason's essay--he's on the football team and a really great guy, smart and interested, and how often do I get that?--and he chose to do the Gaia question too. I don't know, is it just the goddess tie-in that got everybody interested? Anyway, so here's his opening sentence. 'The Gaia theory involves a new way of looking at the earth, focusing on the system as a whole rather than individual areas of study such as geology and hydrology, viewing the earth as a unique and beautiful orgasm.'" He's smirking at me like he just won the lottery.
"Maybe I was dealing with your mini-Niagara at the time, but I don't remember that part of the theory."
"I know. That's because at no point did I ever suggest that the Gaia theory involves viewing the earth as a beautiful orgasm. I think he meant organism."
"Well, write-o, I guess. So now what? Do I give him credit for what he meant?"
"I think you should give him credit for a brave new theory. I know I would have listened more in class if there were a chance I'd be considering ecology at an orgasmic level." It feels wrong to be snickering at the obviously nice and presumably well-meaning Jason like this, but I remember that laughter is good medicine (Sandburg has cited me the studies) and just enjoy the moment.
"Yeah, you know, I'll do that. He'll take it well. And from what I can tell," he takes a second to scan down the rest of the page, "it looks like he got the rest of it right. Maybe someday I'll be teaching the Jason Shrotnick theory of global orgasm. An up and coming field, no doubt." He gives me that shit-eating look that inevitably accompanies a really bad pun, and I don't even dignify it with a grimace.
"Okay, funny boy, time for lunch. Finish up whatever you can in the next few minutes, because after lunch you're going down for a nap."
He starts arguing immediately; I was wondering how I got off so easy the first time. "Jim, who died and made you the nap-fairy, huh? When did you assume the noble mantle of napmeister?"
I ignore him on the grounds that responding will erroneously convince him that he is amusing. I can hear him starting to get up, and I turn around with a glare that has made suspects cry. He flashes a grin at me, but stays seated as well. Score one for the old glare. I should have known it wouldn't be enough, though.
"No, really, Jim, this is actually kind of interesting. I mean, you're presuming on our friendship, here. Telling me to take a nap is like--like treating me like a kid. You know I've got more grading to do, and then we've got to test your possible new skill. I don't really think I have time for a nap." He says that last word in the tones of a vegetarian contemplating a nice rare steak.
I figure this discussion is important enough to come back out of the kitchen. "You're practically done with the essays, and we've got as long as we need for the tests. I'm not going back to work until we've figured this out--yes, Simon approved that--and we're not figuring this out until you're no longer triggering this 'guide about to get sick' warning that I seem to have. So today and tomorrow and as long as it takes, you're going to eat well and sleep a lot and only leave home to visit Mrs. Phillips--and that's another point, because if you get sick you can't risk passing it on to her, can you?" He looks slightly stunned, and I hope I'm getting better at this whole verbal-debate routine, because he's in no condition for another shouting match.
He opens his mouth to argue, but I beat him to it. "And as for my authority, Chief?" I fix him with my most intimidating look of cool control. "You may be the expert on sentinels, but I am the world's foremost leading expert on Blair Sandburg."
Eyes wide, he looks at me for a long moment. This is where the debate is decided--did I win, or do I have to tie him up and force-feed him juice until he no longer triggers my senses or my guilt? I'm about ready to go for the rope when he says, "Okay, man. What's for lunch?"
Victory is mine, and I turn back to the kitchen. "You'll know when I do, Sandburg." I hear no movement for a few seconds, and then he grabs another essay from the table. Idly surveying the available canned soups, I consider the next few days. Sandburg's going to want to test every niggling detail of this new development. I'll be taking tests that only his twisted mind could conceive. Tests his students would run screaming from--not a global orgasm in sight. He'll worry at the problem until he's got it figured out, so that he can protect me. And if this is real, it will give me something invaluable, a new weapon in the arsenal that stands between my guide and danger.
If I could have one area where I get a glimpse into the future, this would be it. Let the tests begin.
Author's notes continued: This is my first attempt at present tense, first person, Jim's POV. I would be very grateful for criticism of voice and character. Send to DCStreets@aol.com.
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