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: I didn't expect to write a sequel to Sick and Tired. So I've managed to get myself into a series that 1) is from a POV I'm not comfortable with, 2) is in a tense I'm not comfortable with, and 3) has a really stupid name. I give you...The Sick Series. Am I the title-queen or what? <g>
Warnings: Coarse language.
Author's notes: Takes place soon after S2P2 and directly after my story "Sick and Tired". This story benefited from the beta efforts of Hellesgift and the SA list members. I appreciate any and all feedback; constructive criticism has the added benefit of improving my work!
Sick Of It
Something is about to happen to Sandburg.
Something is about to happen to Sandburg, and I wish he'd just get it the hell over with.
That sounds harsh. Even to me, even after the day I've had, that sounds harsh. But something has been about to happen to Sandburg all damn day, and I'm getting distinctly Victorian about it.
We are not amused.
The fun began when Sandburg left for his first day back at Rainier, after his bout of what I've come to think of as pre-pneumonia. We'd dodged that bullet, but I was suddenly convinced that I had relaxed too soon.
Something was going to happen to Sandburg. I could feel it in that way I can't seem to describe: a sense of looming injury. It feels like the air before a storm, or the way a room looks just before the light comes on...for the past week Sandburg wrote down all my descriptive attempts with obvious signs of fascination, and yet he's no closer to understanding how it really feels than I am to explaining it. But this morning, having finally stopped triggering my "looming-illness" sense, he left for school--and almost immediately began triggering a new "looming-accident" sense.
It was overwhelming, bringing with it the kind of sweaty-palmed panic that I haven't had since...well, since the fountain, and didn't that memory help me stay calm. I jumped out of the shower--nearly concussing myself in my rush to grab a towel--and dripped my way rapidly over to the phone. Standing in a growing puddle, I cursed as my fingers slipped on the speed-dial. I hung up after one ring, hoping Simon wouldn't take the trouble to trace a hang-up, not caring really, if I could just get Sandburg to answer the phone, answer the phone, pick up the damn phone, Sandburg!
And the sensation stopped. Just the way it stopped once he was past the pre-pneumonia. But maybe this time it was because he had been hurt, because I wasn't there to stop it, whatever it was. And the phone was still ringing, ominously unanswered as I stood shaking from cold and wet and something I didn't want to acknowledge. Just as I was about to toss the phone and make a grab for the car keys--and pants, remember pants--I heard Sandburg's voice.
"Yeah, this is Blair."
He sounded a little stressed but otherwise fine. "What the hell just happened, Sandburg?"
There was a perhaps-understandable pause, and then Sandburg said, "Jim? Are you okay?"
I realized that I was shaking in earnest now, an adrenaline reaction that only ever hits me after the crisis has passed. Before I could respond, Sandburg continued.
"Jim? Man, tell me you're okay, okay? I can't deal with mystery right now, man. Come on, Jim, are you zoning or something? Follow me back, Jim; follow my voice--"
Not that I don't enjoy his guide-voice routine-- "Sandburg, I'm fine. What the hell happened?"
"What what?" And then he giggled. "And who's on first, man?" He didn't need to see my grimace; he apologized on his own. "Sorry, Jim, but before this stimulating exchange degenerates even further--to words of...I don't know...half syllables--how about you give me a little more..." He trailed off, and I heard the little hitch in his breathing that indicates excitement. "Oh, man. Did you just sense that?"
"Sandburg, if you make me say 'what' again, I'm going to predict your future without this new sense."
"Sorry. It's just--this idiot pulled around me just as an ambulance was passing--I was pulled over, you know, like he was supposed to be, by law and if he had the sense God gave a gnat--so this guy pulls around me and then figures it's a bad idea and tries to merge through my car. I mean, I almost ended up in his passenger seat, you know? Thankfully the ambulance driver was aware, because she pulled out wide, and the idiot managed to get around me without adding to the EMTs' workload. I was that close to being a grease-spot, Jim," I winced at the image, "but I never thought that you'd have some sort of reaction to it. I wonder what kind of confidence interval this sense of yours needs before it triggers? Because, I mean--it didn't happen. And the whole sick thing didn't happen, although I have you to thank for that. But are you going to be triggering--"
I hated to interrupt him, I really did, but the loft was getting cold, the floor would start warping soon, and I needed to get to work. Simon had been more than generous with my time off as it was. "Sandburg!"
He was still thinking feverishly--I could hear the gears grinding and the gerbil panting--but he paused in his lecture. "Yeah, Jim?"
"You had a week for testing. You can have more time later. But now we both have to get to work."
"Right, Jim. Okay. I'll think on this in my spare brain-time. Thank Simon again for me, okay? And if you feel like there's the slightest chance you're going to start zoning again, you make nice with Conner and you call me, right?"
And that was how we had left it. Until, of course, I had to dash out of an interrogation to call about his impending stubbed-toe. It happened just before he picked up the phone, and he alternated between curses and exclamations about how interesting the whole thing was. Maybe for him. He just had a possibly broken toe. I had a pissed off Conner to deal with.
Actually, Conner was fairly understanding until the second false alarm--which was a papercut, not that it matters--and which prompted her to make an exasperated face that I hope for her sake never sticks. Sandburg was only slightly less peeved, since I called him in the middle of his afternoon lecture.
By the fourth trigger, I knew not to bother Conner. She grimaced eloquently when I jumped up from our review of the smuggling ring's files, but she didn't try to interfere. I reminded myself to take her out for lunch soon...assuming Sandburg was okay.
Something was going to happen to Sandburg.
My hands were rock-steady when I dialed his number a second ago, despite the growing sense of imminent disaster swamping this hell-spawned sense of mine. Something is going to happen to Sandburg, it's like a refrain, and now I'm standing outside Major Crimes, praying as the phone rings.
"Jim?" No need to wonder how he guessed.
My relief at the sound of his voice is overwhelming, like rain after a drought, and he sounds okay with getting a call...I must not be interrupting a lecture this time.
"Chief, something's about to happen."
There's a slight pause. "Okay, man...something 'squished like a bug' or are we talking papercut here?"
"Yeah. Figures." He sighs. "We didn't do enough work on this, Jim. We stopped the zones but didn't calibrate the sense; I can't believe we didn't get a fix on this."
"We tried." Hell yeah, we tried. We spent hours on tests, many of them unpleasant for a control-oriented individual. Sandburg used the term 'control-freak', but he gave me credit for cooperation. I let him hypnotize me and meditate over me and every other crazy thing he could think of, but we never did get a handle on the old input calibration, and now we're paying the price. He sighs again--it's quiet, but it's like getting a low grade on one of those blue books of his, like I've disappointed Professor Sandburg.
But then he sets me straight. "This is my fault, man. I couldn't find any mention of something like this in the primary literature, and I never figured out a way to calibrate the lower-level inputs, because we were trying so hard at the time just to stop the nonproductive response you were having to higher-level in--"
"Sandburg, watch out!" I shout, as the sense spikes abruptly. I can hear him gasp in response and then, with an inevitability
that leaves my guts in knots, I hear something slip. He grunts, and I'm forced to listen to the phone smacking into what sounds
like cinderblocks at the same time that I hear my guide falling down...stairs...falling...
"Ellison? Come on, Ellison, Sandy's not going to like this. I promised him I'd look after you, so just come on back and take it like a woman. Come on, Ellison, don't make me kick you again--surely I've had enough fun today. Ellison, you get back here or I'll sing Waltzing Matilda till your ears bleed."
"Way to play hardball, Conner." She smirks at me, but underneath I can tell she's worried. It's a discomforting thought, because if Conner's letting me see that she's worried, something must really be wrong...
Shit! Something's wrong, all right. I glance around stupidly for the phone before realizing it's the source of pain in my left hand. The case cracked under pressure, but I can still hear Sandburg on the other end, so it's not broken. Well, it is, but...
"Jim! Jim! Dammit, Jim, are you there?" his voice gets louder as I raise the phone, so I resort to yelling at the mouthpiece while it's still a few feet away. Conner stares at me like I'm eating a live snake.
"Sandburg? Sandburg, stop yelling for a second, okay?"
There's a brief silence, during which I tentatively raise the phone to its proper position. "Sandburg, are you okay?"
The silence continues for a moment longer."Jim, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just zoned for a second. Are you--"
"But you're back now, right?" His voice is low and calming.
"Yeah, Conner brought me back. Are--"
"And you're fine. No lasting after-zone effects, right?"
"Senses not on the blink or anything?"
"Then give the phone to Conner, would you?"
"Conner?" She looks askance as I repeat her name. "Why?"
"Because I'm going to tell her to kick your ass!" Sandburg's shout is loud enough to reach her, and Conner's eyes widen.
"You know what you were sensing, man? You know what had you so hyped that you nearly blew out my eardrum?"
"You were sensing the perfectly reasonable reaction of a person who is screamed at by an insane Sentinel, which is to jump in shock, which often causes said victim of insane Sentinel to fall down the fucking stairs! You caused the accident, dammit! And what you were sensing now includes a veritable rainbow of bruises that are going to be painful for a week, and I swear to God if you keep sensing impending disaster every time I hit a bruise for the next week, I'm going to put one or both of us out of our misery!"
His breathing is harsh, strained, and I spare a moment to be grateful that we're not in mid-pneumonia, which is the only reason I can think of not to consign this new sense of mine straight to hell. There's a tense silence, and when he finally speaks again, it's as if we shared the same thought.
"Sorry,Jim." He sighs. "I know it's not your fault. I just freaked. Falling down the stairs was less than fun, and when I couldn't get you to answer, I didn't know if the phone was broken or if you were--" his voice cracks, and I hear him taking slow, deep breaths to calm himself. I do the same, and it's only as the adrenaline rush fades a bit that I realize Conner has a hand on my lower back, helping to calm me. I give her a tight smile, and she nods briskly.
"Chief, what are we going to do about this?"
"Is Conner still there?"
"You going to keep answering my questions with questions?"
This time the sigh is exasperated, which is what I was going for. I hate when he sounds so defeated. "Since she's a good friend, I'm assuming she's still there." He wasn't talking loudly, but Conner is standing close enough to hear him, and I can feel her blush. Damn the kid anyway: She's got her hand on my back, but he makes her blush. Before I can answer, he continues.
"Look, it's a huge imposition, but would you tell Simon that we've still got a problem--I mean, unless you can learn to ignore this for a while?"
Remembering 'almost-squished', I shake my head.
"He can't hear the rattle, Ellison." Conner grins at me, and on the other side of town, Blair laughs. At least I'm spreading joy.
"No, I can't ignore it." I concentrate, however, on ignoring Conner.
"Okay, if Simon gives you permission to leave, which I'm assuming he will because you're a hazard to the community right now--tell him I have the bruises to prove it--ask Conner if she'll drive you home, okay? I'll head home, too, and we'll get her a cab back to work. Ask her nicely, okay man, because this is way above and beyond."
Sandburg sounds honestly reluctant to impose--he must have no clue about the way her temperature jumped half a degree at the idea. I'm not going to tell him about the pheromones, either. Conner reaches across me for the phone, and I remind myself that the pheromones aren't for me, as I resolutely disregard how good she smells and how edible her hair looks.
Sentinel senses can be as hellish as Sandburg's tests for a control-freak.
Conner has finished making plans to drop me off and catch a ride back with a patrol car--I can think of at least four uniformed
officers who will leap at the chance to assist our Australian Inspector. Just doing their bit for international relations, of
The ride home has thus far been pretty quiet. I'm still coming down off of panic and a zone, and Conner seems content just to drive. Well, she seems more 'intent'. She looks like a damn Ford ad, one that tries to convince women that what they most want in life is a big truck. Her hand rests gently on the stick as she puts in the clutch, and I watch the tendons in her wrist tighten as she moves us smoothly into third gear. The shift was so seamless, I'm not sure I would have caught it if I hadn't been watching. When I glance up, I notice that she's got this jaw twitch thing going on. Sandburg mentions mine sometimes--wonder if it comes with my truck? I don't get a chance to mention it.
"You okay now, Ellison?"
"Yeah, no worries." I know that phrase has a different meaning to an Aussie, and I love to watch her wince when I use it. But this time she doesn't react, just continues handling my truck like a professional.
Her face has a complete lack of expression that makes me uneasily wary. Tuning in to her vital signs--she's not thinking of Sandburg, I guess, so my libido leaves me alone--I sense mainly a forced calm. I get the feeling she would be staring straight in front of her if driving didn't require a bit more involvement. She's gritting her teeth; I can practically hear the ivory cracking.
Oh yeah, that's right. She's had the day from hell too.
"Sorry about today, Conner." Sorry I've been acting like a madman--and an ungrateful madman at that.
She shrugs slightly, dismissing my statement as unimportant. She must not realize how rarely I apologize. Before I can continue, she speaks again, voice low and controlled, the way Sandburg talks when he most wants to scream at me.
"The..." she takes a deep breath, and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This isn't good. "The unpleasantness with Barnes--with you and Sandy. That's over now?"
Sucker-punch. She hits me hard with that diplomatic description of my core meltdown and my partner's death.
How do I answer that? Yeah, I kicked him out of his home, called him a traitor in front of our friends, threw him out of my life, got you into a fight with a psycho-Sentinel, and then dashed across town to find him...shit, I can't breathe.
"Put your head between your knees, Ellison!" Her sharp command breaks through my panic.
Out of principle, I resist her hand on my neck, but force myself to calm down until I'm breathing freely again and the edges of my vision are no longer decorated with dancing lights.
She removes her hand in order to downshift. I'm glad for the lack of contact, because I got the distinct feeling that beneath the perfunctory guide-attempt, there was a lot of anger longing to dig in its claws. Having checked me for signs of a zone, she speaks again, her voice a masterpiece of studied calm.
"When we got back after hunting Barnes down," her choice of words doesn't escape me, "I had a little talk with Captain Banks. He assured me that partnerships in Major Crimes don't usually explode messily and dangerously, that you in fact were not the type to abandon a friend for a mistake, and that the situation that led to a civilian colleague's death was anomalous and would not be repeated." She could cut glass with those tones, and the level of tension in the truck is making me ill. "I have a lot of respect for Captain Banks, and I'd be very...disappointed...if I found out that he was mistaken."
Shit, it's the Godfather--Godmother; I want to check under the seat for a horse's head. Marlon Brando couldn't improve on her icy threat--because, whereas she has it all over Marlon on looks and fighting ability, he's got nothing on her for sheer intensity of veiled-intimidation.
I don't quite know how to answer--swearing fealty and ducking both come to mind. When I finally make the attempt, I speak with every ounce of honesty I can muster: "I respect Simon too--he's not mistaken."
Pulling up at a stoplight, she turns to gaze at me. Gradually her expression softens. "You're not a bad guy, Ellison. But you need to work on your instincts--and your responses to them."
Oh, this is perfect. Minutes away from more testing from Sandburg, and I get to sit through a lecture from Conner. Only my sense of guilt is keeping me quiet. Maybe she picks up on that, because she gives me a crooked smile.
"Not that it's much of my business, I guess." Damn straight. "I've never liked to see the underdog get kicked." If she thinks Sandburg's the underdog-- "So I'll leave you alone now."
What? Now she's grinning at me fiercely, and somehow the driver behind us must know there's a crazed, overprotective mafiosa in front of him, because there isn't a single honk despite the fact that the light has just turned green. Noticing the change, she accelerates away from the stop, still smiling.
"Close your mouth, Ellison." She shifts smoothly into second. Seemingly unconcerned by my stare, she turns onto Prospect. Torn between outrage and amusement, I'm surprised to find myself distracted by her driving. Brake first, then clutch, slowing into the parking lot, smooth as silk into an empty spot.
Watching her easy expertise, I remember my first week of boot camp. 'Rich-boy' was the nicest name I got called: everything I did, every word I spoke was an unintentional provocation to my fellow enlistees. I beat up those I had to--supremacist assholes who decided that light hair and blue eyes were a sign I agreed with them--and the rest I set out to prove wrong. I was the best at everything--best shot, fastest runner, quickest thinker, toughest fighter. Pretty good for a rich-boy.
When I look up, Conner--a woman who wears pink and kicks ass in a man's world--is staring back at me, a half-quirked smile of recognition on her face. I feel a flash of brotherhood...well, siblinghood, I guess. I risk a smile, and she nods. "Let's get you upstairs, Ellison."
Before we can take two steps, a black-and-white pulls in beside us.
"Evening Detective, Inspector. Everything okay?"
Conner looks like she's found a worm in her salad. "Officer Henstead?"
Henstead blushes. "Call me Ray. Ready to go?"
"Pardon? 'Go'?" Conner's doing her Brando impression again, but Henstead misses the danger signs.
"Yeah, I won the--" he breaks off, flustered.
"We appreciate your help, Officer Henstead." There, I've done my good deed for the day. Henstead rewards me with a beaming smile of gratitude. I could easily like the poor sap; Conner seems to have no such inclination.
"Jim, maybe I should walk you upstairs--"
"Wouldn't hear of it. You've done more than enough--above and beyond, just like Sandburg said. Thanks for everything."
She breaks away from her disappointed contemplation of an evening sans Sandburg to fix me with a stare that could have peeled paint. "You remember everything?"
It's just the two of us, alone in a shared understanding. "I remember."
She nods sharply. Before I can make a move to thank her--for her protectiveness of Sandburg, if not for the lecture--she turns sharply and moves around to the other side of the patrol car.
Henstead, a little behind the curve, fumbles getting back in. Pulling out of the parking lot, he almost stalls. It's probably
just a bad case of nerves and pheromones, but I hear Conner sigh. So much for international relations.
As I climb the stairs to the loft, I try to forget the last half hour. I didn't cause Sandburg to take a dive down a flight of stairs. I haven't faced off against an overprotective Conner. I didn't just relive Sandburg's death and my betrayal. Reciting a litany of lies, I work on projecting an aura of stolid calm.
Not my most successful effort. Sandburg looks up as I open the door, and his eyes narrow. I get an idea of how rough I must look when he shepherds me towards the sofa. He's going to want to talk though, and I try to face it like a woman as Conner suggested. Turning to speak, I'm overtaken by Blair, who blurts out "Dinner first."
I must look bad.
It doesn't take Sentinel-senses to figure out that he picked up take-out on the way home: I'm almost drooling at the smell of panang gai and pad thai. Pavlov's dogs had nothing on me. My attempt to help in the kitchen is firmly rebuffed; he seems intent on playing waiter. His intentions only count for so much, however--when I notice that he's limping, I coerce him into cooperating with a quick scan.
Maybe cooperation is an overstatement. I got 'coerce' right, though.
"I'm fine, man. No, really, some bruises, a couple bumps, that's all. Not a problem, okay? I promise you, I feel better than you look, so just sit back down." I don't care how bad I look--he's got some major bruising here. I can feel the warmer areas of injury as I gently pat him down, and his half-smothered winces are a pretty clear indication, too. The bump on the back of his head could have been serious, and although he assures me he didn't black out, I can't help but tense up at the thought of how bad it might have been--how bad it almost was.
He's tensing up, too, but I soon realize it's for another reason. "Come on, Jim." He fends off my concern. "Give it a break, man. It's no big deal." The stoic routine is a surprise until I remember his accusatory tirade over the phone. Having established me as the cause, of course he has to downplay the result. Bighearted idiot.
Possibly to give himself some cover...or maybe, of course, just because he's getting warm...he begins to take off his sweatshirt. From his muffled grunts, you'd think he was performing some exotic contortions; his bruises have made him stiff, and I finally take pity on him. As I help him pull it over his head, the smell of new ink catches my attention. I look at the t-shirt he's wearing; in fancy swirling letters it says: '...viewing the earth as a unique and beautiful orgasm.' I blink for a second before the memory hits me, and then I see his grin and raise him a chuckle.
Grinning at me now like it's my birthday and he's found the perfect gift, he turns to show me the back of the shirt. 'The Jason Shrotnick Theory of Climactic Globalization.' The letters jump and merge in time with his giggles.
When I've calmed down, I have to protest. "Chief, don't tell me you wore that today. You're going to hurt his feelings."
"Oh, hey man, no way. I mean...no, I didn't wear it to class. But it won't hurt his feelings either. Or, it didn't. Whatever. He gave it to me. The guys on the football team in my class, they were all wearing them under their jackets, and when I dismissed the class, they all stood, dropped the jackets, turned once for their cheering classmates, and walked up to give me one."
"Nice of them to wait until class was over."
"Yeah, I know. After all, we'd already been interrupted once." He elbows me gently in the ribs, still smiling. "They're a nice bunch of guys. Crazy; I would have loved to have the football team actually tolerate me back in high school...now I'm finally cool, and it doesn't even matter." He flashes me a Sandburg special. "Of course, the cheerleaders always had better taste."
"In your dreams, Junior."
"Well, that too." The t-shirt has the unintended advantage of allowing me a visual check on the bruises I felt through his sweatshirt, but he deflects my guilt with a suggestion that we dish out dinner. I try to maneuver him onto the couch, but he's not having it, so instead we end up sharing kitchen duty, dishing up the steaming spicy foods that are my favorite kind of incense.
The hot peppers leave me flushed and warm. He's busy eating, but I raise a fork in a toasting gesture. I hope he understands that I'm thanking him for more than the meal. I'm thanking him for my ability to enjoy something like this, moderating the sensory input so that a dash of pepper doesn't send me into a zone or a spiral of burning agony.
Life used to be so...exciting. Remembering how he fixed my other problems, I feel a renewed confidence that we'll get this one under control. I don't know if any of this is visible in my face, but he pauses for a second and smiles.
"Mm-hmm," he mumbles through a mouthful of noodles.
I want to ask him about our next step, about his plans for my new sense, but I also want to hear the answer--and not through mass of half-chewed starch. So I wait until we've cleared up the remnants of food, washed the dishes, and moved out into the living room before I get down to business. I take the piece of apple he slices for me, asking my question before taking a first bite.
"So, what are we going to do?" At my emphasis on the fourth word, he smiles, then winces a little as he stretches out, preparing himself for a long evening. He rests the knife and half the apple on a paper towel on the table, and I tacitly suspend the house rules so that we can get this show on the road.
"First, I figure we've got to get an idea of the signal-response relationship we're dealing with here. We were pretty sure we were dealing with something bad last week, so we focused on eliminating the zones. But we don't really have enough data to establish a response pattern. I mean, you reacted to my tumble the same way as the papercut, right?"
Tumble. So we're still downplaying. "They pretty much had all the same level of effect on me."
"But do we have any idea if that's because they were all actually the same magnitude of risk? Or maybe it's based on probability...maybe your reaction varies with the probability of the event, not the severity."
Another fun night at the loft. "That doesn't make any sense, Chief. I'm not going to get anything done if I react every time you're probably going to stub your toe...I never knew you were such a klutz."
He tosses a pillow at me. "Thanks, man. But you're right." He frowns. "But if response intensity correlates to event severity...well, we've had two levels of response, right?"
"Zone and panic...yeah."
"And the zone was for a more serious event--"
"The 'squished like a bug' thing would have been serious too, Chief."
He stops, biting his lower lip as he concentrates. "Maybe that's where the probability comes in, what do you think? I mean, maybe it's some function of severity and probability."
"So an absolutely certain papercut feels the same as a one-in-ten chance of dismemberment? Whoa, just kidding!" I add, as he blanches. "Sorry, Sandburg. I didn't--"
"No, s'okay. Just moved wrong; sitting's going to be a challenge for a while."
Great, back to my original regret. His next pillow throw catches me straight in the face. "Stop it, man! Get over the whole guilt-complex thing, okay? Sheesh." He's grinning widely, and it's like Pavlov again: I can't help but grin back.
After a second he returns to research mode. "The thing I don't get is why all these low-level inputs--assuming here that the non-squished event felt low because of the dual-variable function we just posited--registered so high. I mean, once we got the zones fixed, you still sensed the pre-illness, right?"
"Yeah." I think I see where he's going with this.
"How much more intense was that than...say, the papercut?"
"Same order of magnitude, pretty much."
"So what's going to happen when and if the whole dismemberment thing looms?" He's waving his arms now, and I get a sick image of what dismemberment really means.
"...whoa, hey man, come on back. I'm sorry. Come on, Jim, we'll drop that phrase, okay? You okay, man?"
"Yeah." I don't sound okay, even to myself. He's leaning into me, his worried eyes filling my gaze, and then he's got one hand on my shoulder. I wonder briefly if he's going to pull a Conner and shove my head between my knees, but he refrains, just anchoring me until the world stops spinning.
"Okay, okay, look...maybe we should take a break or something, man. Jim, you're really not looking all too hot here." When I sit up, he leans back again, but his anxious stare never leaves my face.
My instinctive reaction to all of this--the worry in his face, the roiling in my gut, the detailed discussion of various ways to damage or destroy my best friend and guide--is to strike out, get away. I want to jump up, push him aside, escape these churning emotions, get out, get out...
But I don't.
And not just because Conner'd kick my ass, either. It's not Sandburg's fault that just thinking about all of this is shredding me into bite-sized pieces. Not his fault that this thing showed up too late to keep him from drowning and I'm now faced with failing again. Not his fault. He's trying to figure it out; I have to let him figure it out.
I realize that my hands are wrapped around something warm. He's handed me a mug of hot milk, which I want to turn away on principle, but instead welcome as a practical solution to my pending panic. I must have been pretty out of it...he nuked the milk and brought it back, all without my realizing he was gone.
He's obviously fighting the urge to hover, knowing that I can't handle that right now but needing to reassure me in some tactile way. He resorts to a mutually-ignored subterfuge, sitting down on the end of the couch but resting one sock-clad foot up against my hipbone. It helps, and eventually my hands are steady enough for me to sip at the milk. He put vanilla in it; it smells like ice cream.
When I'm halfway through the milk, the effect kicks in. Nice thing about being a Sentinel--you can turn down hot peppers and turn up hot milk. I let the mild natural sedative soothe my ragged nerves until I feel able to speak again.
"So where were we?"
He grimaces weakly. "Um...how about we not go back there, huh? I was just trying to figure out what form the function might take, what with the dramatic reactions you're having to all this minor stuff." I feel the slightest urge to remonstrate with him about the stairs, but quell it in the face of a sudden realization.
"The functional form...?"
He nods. "Yeah, I'm thinking maybe it's semi-log or something. I mean, I don't see why--"
I remember semi-log. I actually enjoyed statistics--not as much as I enjoyed damn-lies, of course, but it was a good class. "So I might get the same reaction moving between two fairly low level inputs as between two higher level inputs, because the input is--" shoot, how was it again?--"the input would be graphed on a log scale but the effect is linear?"
"Yeah, but why would that make any sense?"
And his complete lack of surprise at my admittedly-minor statistical knowledge is one of the many reasons I like him as well as love him. He'll make the occasional throwback joke, but he's never surprised when I show myself to have a brain. And now he's honestly asking my opinion, hoping I can shed some light on the subject he's been researching since childhood. Well, maybe I can.
"Semi-log might make sense as a way of buffering the effect of the highest-level stuff. Maybe it's designed so that I can have a perceptible response to the middling stuff, while not being incapacitated by a really high-level event."
"But everything's been registering as major!"
"Well, maybe I'm just not filtering right." He squints in concentration, and I take that as encouragement to continue. "When you helped me stop zoning last week...remember how even though you'd been resting for a couple of days I was still sensing a serious risk?" he frowns slightly, his enforced naptime still a sore subject.
"Yeah, and we've got the orange-juice bottles to prove it."
"Well, maybe after we fixed the zoning, I set the dials too high." He frowns at me, but lets it go. We've spent time recently getting away from the dial idea, but although I see the advantage to filters and event-tags and all our other new coping techniques, sometimes I miss the dials the way you might miss barn-burners after the invention of the safety match. The way you miss something easy and convenient that, oh yeah, has the slight disadvantage of maybe killing you. Still, all of his objections to my tenacious love of analog imagery are still correct, so I try again.
"Maybe you were low risk last week, but I tagged it as high risk. So today the low-risk events registered as major."
I love watching the eureka! expression dawn. "Cool! So you can just..." and then he grimaces at me. "But you can't just shut it out indiscriminately, can you?"
"I can, but I won't." We both know why. I've got this sense for a reason--did pre-civilized Sentinel always end up with pre-civilized klutz as a guide?--and I'm not turning it down without some attempt to calibrate it.
Giving in to nervous energy, he stands suddenly and grabs our few dishes off the coffee table. Lucky I was done with the milk, because he doesn't seem inclined to pause.
Halfway to the kitchen he changes his mind. "You know, social scientists get a lot of flack from people in the 'hard' sciences." He obviously misses having his hands to emphasize with, and he quickly puts the dishes down on the nearest surface. "But frankly, what we do is more challenging. That engineering student of mine would flip if she had to design tests around this stuff. Rock mechanics is easy...I mean, rock is rock, right?" I want to tell him that he's probably oversimplifying, but the engineer was partially responsible for my embarrassing wet spot two weeks back, so she can argue her own case. "But how do we test this? Controlled experiments are kind of a pipe-dream here."
He reaches to move the dishes to the sink, and I swear, it's not the tiny pause, not even this new sense of mine that sends me careening off the couch toward him. My sense has barely kicked in by the time he picks up the knife, but thank god I know the way his convoluted mind works, because only a split second later I've got him shoved against the wall, twisting his arm behind him roughly and hitting pressure-points in his wrist to make him drop the knife.
"Ow, shit, shit!" He groans as I undoubtedly hit a number of his bruises, and I pull him away from the wall only to spin him around and slam him back. His eyes are wide and dark in his pale face, and I force myself to breathe in, calm down. Not to hurt him.
He opens his mouth, and I dig in my fingers until he gasps and shuts up again. Holy Mary Mother of God! What the hell...
"What the hell did you think you were doing, huh?" I punctuate my question by pulling him away from the wall, but this time a hint of fear in his eyes stops me before I slam him back again.
He keeps his mouth shut, but his body speaks for him, his pulse pounding in my ears and racing under my fingertips, his breathing harsh and tense, like fingernails on a chalkboard when amplified by my guilt and rage. Gradually guilt wins out, and I pull away to let him rest flat-footed on the floor again. I keep my hands on his shoulders, and his breathing slowly settles into something approximating a normal rhythm.
Obviously taking my earlier warning to heart, he doesn't try to speak, so I can slowly talk myself down in the echoing silence of his apprehension. I know him too well, thank god. He didn't have time to do something so phenomenally stupid that I want to smack him for even having the thought, let alone acting on it. But I also know him too well to cling to my anger much longer, because I know what motivates his phenomenal stupidity. I don't want to motivate this. I don't want his impressive sense of self-preservation to go up in flames when it comes to me.
I hate that I don't have a choice.
Slowly running my hand down his left arm, I grip his wrist and pull it up between us. I turn his palm up and trace the lines scattered like doodles on a statistician's scratch pad. Life line, love line...hell, I don't know. But I recognize a lack of scars when I feel it. Keeping my thumb pressed gently into the muscle between his thumb and index finger, I force myself to speak softly.
"This where you were going to do it, Sandburg?" He doesn't move, wide eyes still fixed warily on me. "I know when something's going to happen, but not what, right?" I try to smile at him and pretty obviously fail. "How deep were you planning to slice, huh Sandburg? For this not-so-controlled control of yours." Buddy of mine once pinched my hand here--hurt like hell for a week. But I'm not tempted now to hurt. I feel a proprietary interest in the undamaged state of his hand.
Still with my thumb pressed to his palm, I run my fingers up the back of his hand, feeling the delicate bones and tendons connecting fingers to arm. Moving up a little more, I touch the engineering marvel of the wrist, tiny bones rolling like ball-bearings against each other, allowing an amazing range of movement. "Any idea how many easily-damaged parts there are, only a fraction of an inch beneath your palm, Chief?" He tries to close his hand, but I use my thumb to keep his fingers open. "How much PT you'd be facing if you'd used that knife to take your experiment one step too far?" I need a deep breath to push away the image of blood and flesh that comes to me, the panic and pain that could have ended this already unpleasant day.
Now that I'm no longer actually throwing him around, he doesn't seem nervous--but he doesn't move either. We stand silent for a long moment, then he leans forward and butts his head gently against my shoulder. "Sorry, Jim. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well don't let it happen again." I mean to sound tough, but it comes out as a harsh whisper that tells him more about my state of mind than I'd like. He nudges my collarbone one last time, like a colt with its dam, and then finally meets my eye again.
"I didn't think. I'm sorry. It's been a crazy day and I just suddenly--if I could give you another input to figure into the regression--" he hangs his head, miserable. "Stupid. Sorry."
"Yeah. Really stupid." But I squeeze his wrist before dropping it, hoping he'll understand that he's forgiven. Or he will be. Soon. In a couple of years, max.
He makes an abortive move toward the dishes again, but I block his way. "Talk. Living room. Now." He doesn't try to resist, but even so, I walk close behind him until we're both in the positions that started this evening. This time he's sitting at the far edge of the sofa, however, clutching a pillow on his lap, hunched over like he's holding everything in. I have a sudden ridiculous longing for my confrontational roommate, the guy who shoves me around and gets his own way--a little because I let him, but mostly because he's an unstoppable force. This Sandburg--this quiet, tense, repentant Sandburg--worries me. I need my pit bull back.
He doesn't seem inclined to speak--odd, considering that the original problem is still unsolved, so I volunteer, "I think I'll be able to use it."
"Yeah?" He looks faintly hopeful at that, although it's still not the reaction I want.
"Yeah. I've got 'pre-pneumonia', papercut, and stupidity to work with...it's an okay range to start out."
He half-smiles. "So you'll turn it down..."
"Until stupidity is strong enough to get my attention but not bad enough to send me into a panic."
"Great." He looks like I've just given him good news along with a slap--kind of glad and chastened at the same time. I hate this. I was angry...I am angry, but this is too much. I remember his foot, warm against my hip. I don't know how to do that, though. How to cross the couch and make it look even remotely natural. All of my male-bonding instincts are screaming "Noogie!", but somehow I think that's not quite the right approach.
What was it that Conner said about my instincts?
I look over at where he's still curled up, holding tight to his guilt and self-flagellation. After a second, I point to the pillow he's hugging so hard. "Can I have that, Chief?"
Raising an eyebrow, he nonetheless passes it over. I hold it for a moment, long enough for his attention to turn back inwards, and then I swing.
It makes a satisfying muffled thump against the top of his head, and he jumps about a foot. "What the hell, man?"
"This is war, Junior. Arm yourself." I get in a second hit before he finds another pillow and jumps over the back of the couch to gain a superior defensive position. Not bad--but I'm an ex-Ranger, and I take that kind of thing as a challenge. I dash around the end of the couch, and he fakes right. Anticipating his move left, I instead get a face full of pillow as he double-fakes me out. He gets me again on the backswing, then runs as I jump for him.
We're circling the couch now, and I can tell he's tempted to use that killer pitch of his, but he knows he has to hold on to his weapon. In a surprise move of considerable tactical genius, he grabs the blanket from the back of the couch and swings it at me, distracting me for a critical moment. Not bad, not bad, but I get him on the return, and he shouts with laughter as the pillow catches him on the butt. He's swinging that damn blanket again, and I make a critical error, moving in for the strike at the same time that he's flinging the long folds of cloth towards my arm. My weapon is momentarily tangled in the material, and with a cry of triumph he leaps on me, pushing me back onto the couch and pummeling me with the pillow until I'm forced to cry uncle.
He's breathing hard and grinning, and I'm tempted to say 'welcome back.' Instead, I push him off of me, careful of the bruises that I never forgot even during our mock battle. His hair is getting into his mouth and his eyes--I have no idea how he puts up with that--and he's flushed and sweaty. Much better than the pale, quiet alien who was masquerading as my partner a few minutes ago.
What does Conner know about my instincts anyway?
He seems to be completely over it, not waiting for me to speak but jumping right in. "So, you wanna do some tests?"
"You want my honest answer?"
"Okay, then: yeah, I can't wait to do some tests." I try to look like one of his eager students, and he swings a pillow at me weakly.
"Atta boy!" He grabs for his notebook, eager to get down to work. Eager to fix this thing for me. Worrying at the bone
again--my personal pit bull.
When I wake up the following morning, muzzy with less than six hours sleep, I can tell that Sandburg hasn't been to bed. That's the bad news. The good news is: if he ends up with a cold, I shouldn't know about it before he does.
We nailed the low-level response coefficient early in the evening--he's going to have more bruises than a month-old banana, what with the number of times he pinched himself to give me a test reading. For the middle of our range I had the averted yuppie bagel-slice injury, and Sandburg helped me pin down the original pre-pneumonia reaction for our best high value. He mumbled some academic complaints about extrapolating outside of the curve, but from a practical standpoint we were both satisfied.
This morning he sounds tired but wired--a standard combination for him--as he assembles his backpack for the coming day. He's muttering to himself as he paws through the bag's contents, and I tune in.
"Lesson plan, notes, books...hey, Jim, if you're listening, I'm going to be in a little late today, okay?"
We should be investigating his senses...somehow he always knows when I'm eavesdropping.
Or, of course, he talks to me all the time and I only hear him when I'm eavesdropping. That's a better hypothesis. I need more sleep.
I can hear him move to grab a few folders from the seething mass of chaos he calls his room. As he begins sifting through the desk detritus, he continues speaking. "I'm going to stop by and see Mrs. Phillips after class."
I trudge downstairs, heading for the coffee he's already poured me. "How's she doing?"
The sifting pauses, and he comes to stand in the door. "Actually, she seemed kind of happier yesterday. Better. I mean, I know she isn't. You don't get better in Hospice; I've accepted that." I'm glad; he's past the first stage of grieving already. "But she had a letter from her grandson last week, and she's really excited."
"I thought she didn't have any family." Or rather, I thought that her only family was the baby freshman she adopted when Sandburg first moved into the dorm she cleaned.
He shrugs, shifting the papers balanced precariously in his arms. I grab half the stack and help him shove them into his bag. "I didn't realize she had any contact with them. But I guess they finally realized she's dying, and they're trying to make amends. I hope it works out, because she really deserves to be happy, even if it's just--"
He breaks off, bending over the backpack so that his hair swings down over his face. A pillow fight doesn't seem appropriate, so I settle for resting a hand on his shoulder. After a few seconds he straightens and moves toward the cabinet where he keeps his morning tea. "So expect me around one, okay?"
Maybe we're still working on denial. The phone rings, saving me from having to think of some way to fill the painful pause caused by Sandburg's grief.
"This is Ellison."
"Just calling to see if everything's okay." Conner sounds happier than I had expected after our confrontation yesterday.
"Yep, no worries mate." I pause, but she doesn't give me the pleasure. "I'm heading off for work soon, and Sandburg's coming in at one."
"So I'm not going to have to kick any butts today?" I can hear laughter under the feigned-threat, but even farther in the background I can hear a man's voice. I zero in on it and recognize the slightly nervous tones. Henstead.
Shit, maybe international relations didn't take such a hit after all. Before I can figure out a way to tease her, she bursts my bubble. "Oh yeah, and Officer Henstead came over this morning to loan me some football tapes. Real football. I was wondering if you two would like to join the rest of the mob at my place this Friday for an education." I hope, after all his trouble, Henstead is at least invited. I can't sense pheromones over a telephone line, but there's a slight warming in Conner's voice that may bode well for Officer Henstead. Just goes to show that you never know when those tapes of obscure sports will come in handy. I make some comment on the obscurity of the sport, but she ignores me with regal disdain.
"Ask Sandy if he's free Friday." The warmth is much more noticeable. Sorry, Henstead old boy.
"Sandburg--" I turn just in time to see him stand up into the open door of the cabinet. He drops like a stone, sitting on the kitchen floor blinking blearily at me as he rubs his head.
"Jesus, Sandburg, are you okay?" I drop the phone, ignoring Conner's queries in order to move over and squat in front of him.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." He pulls his hand away and checks it for blood. Adding my skills to the search, I find a painful bump on his head but no contusion. As I help him rise to lean against the wall, I'm aware suddenly of an indignant squawking coming from behind me. Oh, yeah.
"Conner, he's okay."
She's bugging me for details, but I can't concentrate on her because Sandburg suddenly turns to me. He's grinning wildly through tears of pain as he asks, "You didn't feel anything, did you?" And the sight of his victorious glee is suddenly too much, I double over and try not to drop the phone again, laughing long and hard. He shuffles over to me, guffawing loud enough that Conner can surely hear him. I bring the phone up to share the mirth: "He just smacked his head into a door, Conner." We're laughing so hard we can barely stand, and I almost don't notice when the disbelieving silence at the other end of the line is replaced by a decisive dial tone. At some point I'll have to convince her that I'm sane, but for the moment I just enjoy the hysteria as our giggles trail off into gasps (from me) and moans (from the klutz).
When we can finally stand straight without groaning, Sandburg punches me lightly on the arm. "Knew we could get you back to your semi-oblivious self somehow!" We share a quick moment of triumph before heading off to our respective workplaces. We share so much, I'm amazed it doesn't bother me. Living space, my job, our calling. But though I appreciate the fact that I'll know if he has a major problem, I'm not at all sorry I won't get to share the papercuts. He's in a high-risk job for them, after all.
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