Thank you to Angela and Cindy for their generous help. Any lingering typos or tiny inconsistencies are my own fault. Feedback gratefully received & more fanfic available at www.sandramcdonald.com
A cold beer in one hand. The sports section in the other. A Mel Gibson movie playing on the TV - the first 'Lethal Weapon,' the best of the series, with lots of explosions and gunfire. Dinner in the oven - roast chicken and rice, one of his ex-wife's recipes. A chill breeze moved through the open patio doors, and the sky glowed gold with late autumn sun. Jim Ellison sighed happily and settled back further on his sofa, happy with life as he knew it. He'd had little peace, quiet or privacy since letting Blair Sandburg move into his spare bedroom two weeks earlier, and he intended to enjoy this oasis of calm for as long as it lasted.
He figured he deserved it, after all. As autumns went, it had been one hell of a season. Jim had been on the trail of the notorious bomber "The Switchman" when Blair Sandburg had whirled into his life, jabbering about heightened senses and tribal Sentinels and some guy named Richard Burton, but not the actor. For the first time in forever, Jim actually had a semi-rational explanation for problems he'd begun to fear were entirely psychological. Faster than anyone could say "unofficial police observer," Garret Kincaid and his lunatics had overrun police headquarters, inflicting a dozen injuries and causing significant property damage. A week later Danny Choi had been shot down in front of Jim's very own eyes, a tragedy Jim was still struggling to cope with, and a week after that, Sandburg had been burned out of his odd living quarters in a warehouse and taken up residence in the loft.
Sandburg's "one week only" had come and gone. He'd asked for an extension, as if Jim were a professor to whom he owed a paper. The kid had managed to look all innocent and dewy-eyed during the request, even though he'd been bouncing on the balls of his feet. Although Jim had acquiesced, he didn't want Sandburg to start thinking about any long-term residency plans. Jim liked his privacy. He liked quiet. He liked order and discipline in his home, and he didn't like sharing his personal life with anyone. Sharing with Carolyn had been hard enough, and she'd been his wife. But he figured that he owed Sandburg for his help with the Sentinel stuff, not to mention for saving Jim's life once or twice, so he'd agreed to a month, tops.
Just as Mel got thrown through a plate-glass window by machine- gun fire, footsteps sounded in the hall. Jim listened to the fumble of a key in the door but didn't look up as his roommate came in.
"I'm in a great mood, Sandburg," he called out with a teasing note. "Let's just try not to ruin it. No weird experiments, no bizarre stories, no monkeys brought home from the primate lab, okay?"
Two words. Enough to make Jim snap his gaze up.
"Christ," he said. "You're sick, Chief."
"Am I?" Sandburg asked vaguely. He stood just inside the doorway, sweat glistening on his forehead and face, his right hand trembling as it clutched his battered backpack. "Okay. I'm going to bed."
He headed for his bedroom. Jim put the paper aside. He rubbed his eyes for a brief moment and allowed himself just a few seconds of regret for the perfect evening that was obviously not meant to be. Then he rose and followed his partner. The younger man had made it to his futon, but just barely. He lay curled up on his side, eyes closed tightly, shivering, the backpack clutched like a safety blanket.
"Shit," Jim muttered. He couldn't let Sandburg lay there looking so pathetic. "Come on, Chief. Let's get you under the covers."
"No," came the low reply. "I'm fine. Just a headache."
"And a fever. Does it feel like the flu?"
"I don't know."
The childish whininess of the response made Jim clench his jaw. Jim hated whining. He hadn't been able to get away with it as a child, or in the army, or as a cop, and there was certainly no need to put up with it in his own home. "You're not dying, Chief," he said, as he pulled off Sandburg's sneakers and rolled him over to grab the bedcover.
Sandburg didn't answer. Jim got him under the blankets and piled an extra one on for good measure. He knew from army medical training and personal experience that the only palliative measures for the flu were rest, fluids, aspirin and time. Coddling wouldn't help.
"You want some aspirin?" Jim asked.
"No," Sandburg said in a small voice. "I'll be fine."
Jim doubted that, but he didn't argue. He went back to his sofa and the folded newspaper. Ten minutes later the chicken finished cooking, and he ate dinner by himself while watching Mel and Danny Glover defeat the last of the bad guys. Jim put away the leftovers and had his hands deep in the soap suds when Sandburg staggered out of his room. The brightly dyed wool blanket draped over his shoulders made him look like some lost Indian shaman, and the sneakers in his hands indicated a plan to go out.
"Where are you going, Chief?" Jim asked incredulously.
"To the store. The one near campus."
"For what?" Jim rinsed off a glass, shut off the water and dried his hands.
"Herbs," Sandburg said vaguely. He sat at the table and bent his head to the task of unknotting tangled shoelaces. "Boneset's good. Yarrow too. Maybe some elder."
Jim watched his fingers fumble at the knots. "Chief, you're in no shape to go anywhere but back to bed. Come on."
"But I need them," Sandburg insisted, even as Jim got him back on his feet and directed to the bedroom. "Maybe they'll deliver... "
"Maybe," Jim replied. "We'll call them later."
Jim hadn't been paying attention before, but the anthropologist's room was in dire need of a thorough re-organization. Textbooks and library books made piles on the desk and rug, two half- unpacked boxes in the corner had taken on the additional duty of acquiring dirty laundry, and three dirty plates had been balanced in precarious positions on the bookshelves.
"When you feel better," Jim warned, "we're going to talk about housekeeping."
"Mmm," Sandburg said, looking none too excited at the prospect. Jim relieved him of his blanket and then decided it couldn't be too comfortable sleeping in jeans and a sweater.
"You want to get undressed?"
"I guess." Sandburg started to pull off his sweater but got his arms tangled in the sleeves. Jim shook his head and helped him get loose. The worn T-shirt underneath might have been white once, but too many washings had left it gray. Every few months Jim bought new T-shirts at Target, three for seven dollars. Didn't Sandburg have even seven dollars to his name? Before Jim could ask, the young anthropologist lost either his energy or motivation for undressing and curled up on the bed.
"Almost there," Jim said. He hated to see a job only half completed. "Unbutton your pants, Chief."
Sandburg fumbled at the buttons. Jim pulled them off, folded them, and put them with the rest of the dirty clothes. Clad only in that gray T-shirt and a pair of briefs with a sagging elastic waist, the anthropologist huddled back under the blankets.
"You should really take that aspirin."
"Later." Sandburg turned his head away. "Don't get too close. You'll get this too."
"I got my flu shot, Chief."
Now was not the time to discuss his Sentinel senses. "I reacted just fine. You're the one who didn't get the vaccine and is paying the price."
"Vaccines can be harmful," Sandburg insisted, his words slurring as he fell asleep. Jim didn't hear the rest of the warning. He gathered the dirty dishes and returned them to the kitchen. He had planned to do a wash for himself, so he gathered up his roommate's clothes and threw them in the washer tub as well.
Afternoon shaded into evening and night. Jim shut the patio doors against the cold and settled in to watch one of his other favorite moves, 'Tango and Cash.' Funny, he hadn't thought Kurt Russell would be a good match for Sly Stallone. Sandburg woke around eight to use the bathroom. Jim intercepted him in the hall on the way back and forced a glass of water and small pills into his hands.
"Take them," he ordered. "You'll feel better."
"Thanks, man." Sandburg crawled immediately back into bed.
"You're welcome." Jim lingered a moment to put the messy collection of books into an orderly pile. He didn't want either of them tripping in the dark. He cracked open the window for fresh air. "You need anything?"
"No. You're a pretty good nurse."
"I'm not a nurse," Jim replied swiftly and decisively. "My medic training is for triage in the field. For emergencies. This is neither - just a routine case of the flu."
Blue eyes blinked up at him in bewilderment. "Okay. Whatever. Sorry."
"Okay," Jim agreed. He took a deep breath. "Get some sleep."
If the sick anthropologist got up at all during the night, Jim slept right through it. He woke at exactly six a.m., well-rested and ready to kick criminal butt. Neither the gray skies nor promise of rain in the forecast dampened his mood in the slightest. After doing a hundred sit-ups and a hundred push-ups, Jim poked his head past the blanket that functioned as Sandburg's door. The younger man lay deep asleep, his cheeks flushed with fever. Jim experimented with his Sentinel senses a little, listening for the younger man's breathing and heartbeat, but he had so little control over direction that he found himself focused on the distracting sounds of his own intestines and gave up the effort.
In the shower he made a mental list of everything he had to do that day - interview a hostile witness in a liquor store robbery, follow up on a stray lead in the Gonzalez case, finish two reports before Simon realized how late they were. Only when his fingers brushed against Sandburg's loofah sponge did he wonder if someone at Rainier needed to know the grad student wouldn't be going to the university that day. Jim hadn't concerned himself much with Sandburg's schedule or university policies. When he had free time, the anthropologist showed up at the station. When he didn't, he was either teaching or attending class himself. In the middle of shampooing the little hair he had left, Jim decided it might be prudent to get a copy of Sandburg's schedule, just for times like this.
"Chief?" he asked several minutes later, one hand on Sandburg's shoulder. Jim preferred the lingering soap smell of his shower to the sweaty odor of the futon's sheets, and he tried to stay focused on the former. Sandburg's skin beneath his fingertips felt hot and damp, and he pulled his hand away.
"Do you have to teach this morning?"
Blair blinked up at him. "Huh? Teach? Oh, okay."
The anthropologist started to sit up. Jim pushed him back down. "No, I mean, do you have to call in and cancel any classes?"
"I don't know. Can't remember." Sandburg rolled over, blinked at the clock, squeezed his eyes shut. "I feel awful."
"Of course you do. People with the flu always feel awful."
"Could you look at my schedule for me? It's in my backpack."
Jim searched, reluctantly, through the backpack. In addition to two textbooks, an address book and a notepad covered with scribbled handwriting, he found a half-empty bottle of pink Snapple, a banana peel, and the cellophane-wrapped crusts of what might have been a tuna fish sandwich. Jim wrinkled his nose, bit back a scathing comment about Sandburg's messiness, and kept digging until he came up with a wrinkled piece of paper in a sheet protector.
"Ten o'clock, Language and Symbols," Jim read.
Sandburg pulled himself upright. He sat, swaying only a little bit, his eyes still shut. "I better call in sick. My students will love it."
While Sandburg made the call, Jim made himself a quick breakfast of English muffins and coffee. He scooped up the morning newspaper from outside the door and scanned the headlines. Sandburg shuffled out of his room to return the cordless phone to its cradle. He sat at the table, his head resting on his arms, his bathrobe hanging in wrinkled folds to the floor.
"You should drink some tea or juice," Jim said.
"Maybe later," Sandburg said, muffled.
"Take more aspirin," Jim said, rattling the bottle that he'd left out on the counter. "Call me if you really need anything, but I'll be in and out all day. I should be home around five."
Jim made it to the station by seven-thirty. Simon was already in his office, bellowing on the phone, starting off his day with a good ass- chewing. Jim put a check next to his name on the sign-in board and turned on the coffee machine. While the liquid brewed, he took a look at the overnight crime report compiled from Cascade's twelve precincts. Muggings, domestic calls, vandalized ATMs, a pharmacy robbery. Prostitution busts. Fifteen stolen cars. The other detectives in Major Crimes drifted in by eight-thirty, some with cheerier faces than others.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning," Henri Brown said as he pulled off his jacket. "Is it a beautiful day or what?"
"It just started to rain." Rafe, Brown's partner, checked off his name on the board and turned his puffy, bloodshot gaze on the rest of the room. "And I've got the worst cold ever, don't even talk to me."
"Take some Dayquil," Brown said, producing a bottle from his bottom drawer. "And keep your distance. I don't need anyone's cold."
"Sandburg's got the flu," Jim offered.
Rhonda, the division clerk, dropped a dozen manila folders into Jim's in-box. "Half of Vice has the flu. Most of Records is out sick, too."
Joel Taggart, still limping from the bullet he'd taken during Kincaid's siege, paused on his way toward Simon's office. "Do you know that the flu is one of the deadliest killers in all of history? In 1918, it killed twenty million people."
"How do you know stuff like that?" Rhonda asked.
"It's on his toilet paper," Brown answered. "Trivial Pursuit toilet paper."
"What's wrong with that? It's good reading material." Joel knocked on Simon's door and let himself in.
"Well, I've only got a cold," Rafe sniffed, blowing his nose on a dark blue handkerchief that matched his suit.
Jim tuned out the morning banter after that, although his mind kept circling back to the idea of twenty million flu fatalities in 1918. When was that, during World War I? Sounded like an awful lot of dead people. His imagination conjured up bodies lying in heaps, sick men and women crammed into hospital wards. Maybe Joel was wrong about the number. And how did Brown know what kind of toilet paper Joel had, anyway?
He forced the questions out of his head and concentrated on doing his job instead. By eleven he had finished the two reports he owed Simon and tracked down an address on his uncooperative witness. Jim drove in pouring rain to the guy's place of work, a garage down by the waterfront. It took Jim twenty minutes to cajole a statement out of the man, who didn't seem to have a green card or any other legal right to be in the United States. Jim decided to let Immigration worry about that one. On the way back to headquarters he stopped for take-out at Burger King. By the time he got back to his desk, half the bullpen was at lunch and four yellow message slips had been put on his chair.
The pimply teenager back at Burger King had forgotten to put napkins in his bag. Jim searched his desk but couldn't find any. His spare forks and spoons had disappeared, too. He left his burger and onion rings on his blotter and went down to the break room, where his ex-wife Carolyn Plummer was watching her lunch heat in the microwave.
"Hey, Carolyn," he said, pulling a wad of napkins out of the dispenser. "Don't tell me you're sick, too."
"How can you tell?" she asked, fumbling for a tissue.
"You smell like Hall's cough drops."
"They do smell strong, don't they?" Carolyn sneezed into the tissue and threw it away. The microwave pinged. Without washing her hands, Carolyn opened the machine, rotated her two tacos and popped them in for another thirty seconds. "I hear Blair's got the flu."
"Yeah," Jim said. He tried not to think about the germs now crawling all over the microwave handle. "It's going around. He'll be fine."
"Is he still staying with you?"
"For a few more weeks, yeah," Jim said. He hadn't wanted Carolyn to find out about Sandburg's living arrangements, but she'd heard about them through the office grapevine. Even if it was no longer her business, even though their marriage had ended, the divorce had left small areas that made him feel odd whenever he crossed them. Any mention of her parents, for instance, the couple that had taken Jim in as family and to whom he was now just a memory. Or talking about the loft where they'd lived and loved and fought. Sandburg's room had been her study, and once they'd even talked about renovating it into a nursery for the Ellison-Plummer children that would now never exist.
"Maybe I should send over some chicken soup to hold him over," Carolyn joked. "I remember how much you like being around sick people."
Jim squared his shoulders. "What does that mean?"
Carolyn slid him a sideways look. "It means that you're no Florence Nightingale."
"Jim? Florence Nightingale?" Joel repeated the remark as he entered the break room with a large Tupperware bowl of lettuce. He opened the refrigerator and began hunting through shelves of outdated condiments, stale leftovers and anonymous brown paper bags. "G.I. Joe, maybe. Florence, no."
"I took care of you when you were sick," Jim said to Carolyn, with just a trace of indignance.
"When?" Carolyn asked.
Jim folded his arms. "When you had all your wisdom teeth pulled. I even took the day off to stay home with you."
Carolyn pulled her tacos out of the microwave. "I remember. I slept all day while you painted the bathroom. Then you sat down and watched one of those 'Die Hard' movies."
"Which one? The first one was the best," Joel said, pulling a bottle of Blue Cheese dressing from the refrigerator.
Jim shot him an annoyed look. "Joel, your diet's never going to work if you use that dressing. Try some lemon juice."
"Ouch," the other man said as he read the nutritional label. "Well, maybe just a little bit- "
"Besides, it's probably expired. Take a look at the date." Jim knew perfectly well that it was expired - he could see the tiny numbers from eight feet away - but he didn't plan on revealing his abilities for the sake of some salad dressing. He turned back to his argument with Carolyn. "What are you saying? That I... what? Sublimate my nurturing instinct with household projects and testosterone-driven movies?"
"Now you're beginning to sound like Sandburg," Joel said, dumping the dressing in the trash. "How's he doing, anyway?"
Carolyn patted Jim's arm. "You know what, Jim? You're my number one choice when it comes to carrying someone out of a fire or off a battlefield. It's just that hand-holding part afterward where you fall down a little bit. Tell Blair I'll send him some chicken soup tomorrow, okay?"
Jim supposed she didn't mean to be insulting or hurtful, but a small part of him burned all the way back to his desk and through his lunch. He had carried injured men off battlefields. He'd pulled broken, burned men from his wrecked chopper in Peru, he'd done everything he could to keep them alive, but in the end they'd died on him. How could she still hold it against him that he'd painted the bathroom the day of her oral surgery? He'd been home, the job needed to be done, and he'd finished it in less than two hours. Yes, he'd watched Bruce Willis demolish a building afterward, but what else was he supposed to do? Go upstairs, caress her brow and whisper sweet endearments while she drooled on the pillows?
His memory took him back to Peru, to life among the Chopec. Members of the tribe had suffered illness and injury while he lived among them. One of Incacha's beloved grandsons had fallen ill with a fever, and no amount of tender care from his mother had been able to save him. Incacha had been devastated at the loss and Jim, who'd hoisted the child on his own shoulders more than once, shared part of that grief. Jim could still remember the funeral pyre, the small body ceremoniously wrapped atop a pile of logs. If he tried hard enough he could hear the women wailing, the beat of drums, the smell of burning flesh-
The shrill ringing of Brown's phone two desks away jerked Jim out of the past and into the present. He put down the greasy, repugnant hamburger in his hand and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He knew he wasn't Florence Nightingale, never would be, never could be. Caring about people couldn't save them or make them stay. The men from his mission, Carolyn and Danny Choi and even his own brother Steven, who he'd nursed through colds and flu and a broken leg - they either recovered and left him, or died and left him. Almost every single day he put himself in physical danger. Did he have to risk himself emotionally as well?
He knew the answer to that. Like it or not, he knew the answer.
Jim threw away his lunch and went to see Simon. "Is it okay if I take the rest of the afternoon off?" he asked.
Simon looked up from his paperwork. "Don't tell me you're not feeling well, either. I heard Sandburg's got the flu."
"I feel fine," Jim said. "I just want to make sure Sandburg doesn't stink up the loft with his candles and magic potions. He's so feverish he'd probably set the place on fire and not even notice. Kid's kind of klutzy, in case you haven't noticed."
On the way back to the loft he detoured first to the supermarket and then the health store near Rainier. What junk had Blair mentioned? Bone-something and yellow elder? The pretty clerk behind the front desk sold him three herbs that she promised would alleviate flu symptoms, and they made a date for the following Saturday night as well. Score one for G.I. Joe, he thought to himself as he drove home.
The loft was quiet and still when he let himself in. The aspirin bottle remained untouched on the counter. Sandburg had gone back to bed. His restless sleep, punctuated by tossing and turning, had gotten him entangled in the bedding. He looked feverish, helpless and pathetic, but not as bad as those twenty million people probably had before they died. Jim turned on the bedside lamp and shook him awake.
"Huh? What?" Sandburg asked groggily as he struggled out of sleep. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter," Jim said. "Sit up and swallow these aspirin, will you? And I want to take your temperature."
Sandburg swallowed the pills obediently, but twice he dropped the thermometer into his lap. One hundred and three. High, but not too high. He sat shivering against the pillows as Jim plugged in a heating pad for him.
"I got those herbs you wanted, too," Jim said.
"Great," Sandburg said, clutching a pillow for comfort. "What did I ask for?"
"This should help with the chills," Jim said, ignoring the question. He slipped the pad between the blankets at the foot of the bed and got Sandburg to lie down again. "I'll make you some soup later. But get one thing straight - I reserve the right to watch any movie I want, understand? And although I'm not going to paint, I might re- arrange the kitchen cabinets or try to fix the vacuum cleaner or something. That's just the way I am."
Concern and confusion crossed Sandburg's face. "Do you feel okay, Jim?"
"I feel fine," Jim said, standing back from the bed. "I'm just not the nurturing type."
"Okay. Not the nurturing type." For some reason that must have struck Sandburg as noteworthy or odd, because he drifted off to sleep mumbling, "Make a note... not nurturing... wants to paint the vacuum cleaner."
For the rest of the day Jim puttered around the loft, balancing his home improvement urges with a conscientious effort to be a diligent nursemaid. He simmered the boneset in water and persuaded Sandburg to drink a cupful every hour. He made vegetable soup from a mix and got him to swallow that, too. The soup came back up minutes later, necessitating a strategic retreat that almost led Jim to re-organize his sock drawer. He rallied, instead, with hot cloths, flattened ginger ale and a fresh set of sheets. He did not spend the night at Sandburg's bedside, wiping his forehead or soothing his restless dreams. A guy had limits, after all. But he did make sure the kid was reasonably comfortable and left the hall light on in case he wandered around during the night.
The next morning Jim called in sick by leaving a brief message on Simon's answering machine. He hoped, for image's sake, that everyone would assume he really was ill and not just spoiling Sandburg. He preferred to keep his tough-guy reputation intact. But spoil Sandburg he did, with fresh juices and more herbs and blankets still warm from the dryer. By Sunday evening Sandburg had triumphed over the worst of it. His fever had broken and, although he still looked pale and shaky, he'd started eating bland foods like oatmeal and bananas. Ready for a change of scenery, he moved out to the sofa for a few hours.
"What's that?" Sandburg asked, stirring from his pile of pillows.
"What's what?" Jim used the remote control to turn down the television volume.
"On the patio."
"Oh, that." Jim shrugged. "A door. The door to your room. I pulled it out of the basement. But I did not - and pay attention here - I did not sand it, paint it or otherwise renovate it. Maybe I'll do it next weekend."
"Oh." A moment of silence. "Jim?"
"Thanks for taking care of me. I had the flu a few years ago, in between semesters when I was living on my own, and it really sucked." Sandburg tugged a blanket closer to his chin. "You're a really good nurse when you want to be."
Jim looked at him steadily. Sandburg had volunteered to help him with his Sentinel senses in return for data for his thesis. As far as Jim could tell, the kid had moved dozens of times in his life and didn't like staying in one place. Not today and probably not tomorrow, but some day Sandburg would leave just like everyone else in Jim's life. He would waltz away, taking his crazy ideas and wild energy and hippie ways. Holding his hand now, literally or figuratively, wouldn't stop that. But it had made Sandburg feel better, and had only been half as hard as Jim thought it would be. Self-protection had its place, but so did selflessness.
"No problem at all, Chief," he said. He raised his beer in a toast. "Just call me Florence Ellison."
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