Summary: Rules of consanguinity, sentinel genetics, and fictive kinship.
Disclaimer: Not my characters.
When the waiter brought out their plates Jim was telling cop stories. Stephen assumed these were the edited, PG versions reserved for civilians. What the heavy stories were like he couldn't imagine, if what Jim was telling his father and brother about being thrown off trains by mobsters and stopping a group of terrorists with a pro basketball team counted as light ones. Good Lord. And Stephen had thought it sounded bad enough on the news at the time. It was a high-profile and spectacular enough rescue to have landed Jim cop of the year again, if things hadn't hit the fan so soon before the awards.
Not that he was surprised by the stories. Stephen knew his brother was a hero. Strong. Intelligent. Fearless. Tough. Nothing stopped Jim, nothing. It would almost have been easier to just resent him, really. To admit that no matter how well Stephen did - at school or sports or business or anything - he would never be the man his older brother was and have done with it. Be finished with the eternal ambivalence. That's what Stephen had told himself for a long time, that he hated Jim.
But then he spent over a year thinking Jim was a dead hero. It had messed him up enough that Gail had talked him into seeing someone. Professionally. By the time the family was informed that Jim was alive Stephen had already confronted the fact that the perfect older brother around whom both his envy *and* his guilt revolved was also someone he still adored. Jim was the person whose approval Stephen needed most and whose approval he would never get.
Jim hadn't called when he came home. When Stephen called him, Jim was...polite. It was over six years later that he turned up again, by some miracle having forgiven Stephen. By some miracle willing to trust him, even though Stephen was a suspect in a murder investigation. And it was Jim who made the first real move between them. Jimmy, the strong one, the brave one, the kind one. Again.
Better looking than Stephen, even, which he always had been. Stephen had thought he might have an advantage there at last, when Jim started to lose his hair, but now Stephen's forehead was starting to creep up too, and it was clear that without his hair he didn't have a chance of measuring up. Because Jimmy was perfect.
The waiter set mussels down in front of Jim, sea bass in front of Dad, and lamb chops in front of Stephen. For a little while they were silent, eating. Then Dad asked about the Harry Conkle case, a fairly high-profile affair from a few months back.
"Nah, you must be getting bored with all the cop stories. What about you, Stephen? How's Gail?" Generous too. Jim didn't even hog the conversation.
Stephen talked about work, how Jenny was doing in school, and the upcoming visit from Gail's mother. He kept it light and friendly; the three of them had gotten together to celebrate Dad's birthday, and they were determined to have a nice time. Things had been tough lately. Even tougher than normal, which, at the best of times, were strained. But they were all making an effort to be pleasant, earnestly cutting each other breaks.
The list of taboo topics was pretty long; Politics, business, Mom, anything from anyone's childhood, Jim's time in the army, Stephen's disastrous (and brief) first marriage to a sweet woman his father had loathed, Jim's senses, and Blair Sandburg. They danced around these topics deftly, although Stephen suspected they all thought about most of them at some point. He knew he had.
Lunch was fantastic. Dad and Stephen cleaned their plates and filled several moments complimenting the food. Jim pushed his plate away half full, but he seemed satisfied, too. Alfie's was everything Stephen had heard, and even Dad could find nothing to complain about. It was a pleasant outing. They were going to make it through this meal with no one's feelings hurt and nobody arguing. A nice change. A victory.
When they finished their coffee, they went for a walk in Victorian Plaza, the new mall that housed Alfie's. The city had gutted a couple of old buildings downtown, put in new floors and interior walls, and rented them out to trendy boutiques and expensive restaurants. It was, actually, borderline tacky. Not the kind of place to bring William Ellison at all, except he was a huge supporter of urban renewal and had mentioned a couple of times that he wanted to see the new mall since it was completed in the spring.
They walked up and down the quaint-ified indoor 'streets,' admiring the classic brickwork and elegant stained glass windows. "Are these antiques, do you think?" William asked, motioning to a small one over the food court.
"I hadn't read anything about the windows," Stephen said, "Do you think they had the budget for it?"
Jim frowned up at the window. "They're not real. Some kind of plastic film over regular glass, I think."
"You can tell?" Stephen asked without thinking.
Jim just shrugged. "Glass is very distinctive, really."
Stephen cleared his throat and made a vague comment about the small cream and teal tiles on the floor. He would have liked to ask more about what Jim could see, but Jim wouldn't talk about his senses at all in front of Dad, and the few conversations the brothers had had privately had always come back to Sandburg sooner or later. Sandburg was likable enough, and Stephen even trusted his motives ... but the kid was careless and incompetent and Stephen couldn't forgive him for screwing things up so badly that he had learned about Jim's special talents from a news reporter who called the house one night during dinner. He and Jim might be able to talk about things someday, but not yet.
"Do you boys want to go up and look at the third floor?"
"Is there anything up there? I thought they were having trouble finding tenants."
But Jim shook his head, frowning. "I think I'd like to stop by the restroom."
Awkward reasserted itself while they waited. William looked at the walls, Stephen looked at the floor. Then the mounting tension was broken by a young woman pushing past them and racing toward the ladies' room. She didn't make it. Several feet short of the door she stumbled, vomiting all over the teal tiles, the wall, her own shoes. She cursed, taking unsteady steps backward into a man who caught her arm and led her around the mess on the floor. Stephen could only stare in silence, revolted by the spectacular puddle and embarrassed for the poor woman.
The men's room door opened. Jim took two steps before staggering back, gagging, his hand over his face. Before Stephen realized what was going on, Dad had caught Jim by the arms and hustled him over to one of the chairs in the food court. Stephen followed more slowly, suddenly wishing he could get 'awkward' back. He was familiar with awkward. It was comfortable, in its way. Dad squatting in front of Jimmy, asking again and again if he was ok was alarming and strange.
"Dad, we've got a problem," Jim said through clenched teeth. "There was something wrong with the mussels. There are other people throwing up all over the building."
"Are you ok? Jimmy, do I need to take you to the hospital."
"No. Oh, God, no!" He buried his face in his hands. "I'm fine. Really. Just. I'm going to need a ride home. I can't drive like this."
"Stephen, where are you parked?"
"Down the street, across from the bank building."
"I'm in the parking structure here, next to the elevator. We'll take my car. Jimmy, are you ready to move?" As scary as Jim looked, hunched over and pale, Dad's efficiency was reassuring. This could be dealt with.
"Yeah. Ok." But Jim's eyes were still closed and his hand was over his nose and mouth. William had to help him up.
"Are you sure about this?" Stephen asked, overcoming his confusion enough to be thinking again. "Food poisoning with shellfish. That's nothing to fool around with."
"Look, just...take me home. Please."
Jim cringed and panted at the sounds made by the elevator. William hovered, not quite touching his older son. Stephen had never seen him so unsure. He'd never seen Jim so fragile. At the car, Dad handed the keys to Stephen and climbed into the back seat with Jim. In the rearview mirror, Stephen could see them; Dad scowling and rubbing his hands together, Jim sitting very still with his eyes closed and his head back. Stephen adjusted the seat and started the car. He wasn't sure they were doing the right thing, but he didn't know what else to do.
"Jimmy?" Dad asked. "Is it - are you having trouble with your senses?"
"I'm ok." But as they pulled out of the garage into the sunlight he cried out softly and Dad pulled him sideways, cradling Jim's head and covering his eyes with a trembling hand.
"Stephen, do you have your phone?"
"Call the loft. We need to speak to Sandburg."
Which was the first time Dad had mentioned Blair Sandburg without practically spitting since the publicity mess four months before. Stephen pulled out his phone and speed-dialed Jim's place. He wasn't sure what Sandburg could do; he might be a nice guy, but he was irresponsible and, as far as Stephen could see, not amazingly competent. But they needed somebody who knew about this sentinel thing, and Dad was right. Sandburg was it.
Nobody answered. "I'm getting the machine."
"He was...going to the range...gonna get some practice in."
"What's his cell phone number? Jimmy, come on. I don't know what to do. What's the number?"
So Stephen punched in the number Jim gave them, at the same time trying to keep his eyes on the road. The first time there was no answer, and he was cycled to voicemail. Without being told, he hit redial. This time there was an answer before the third ring. For a moment Stephen froze: he had no idea what to say. Blair saved him the trouble, greeting him with, "Stephen? What's happened to Jim?"
"Food poisoning." It was a relief to be able to explain so simply, but Blair's response only complicated things again.
"Are you sure?"
"Are you sure it was food poisoning, or does it look more like an...allergy?"
"Food poisoning. He wasn't the only one. But he's having. It isn't *just* food poisoning."
"Keep talking," Blair snapped.
"Stephen, give me the phone," William said, and Stephen handed the phone back with relief. "Mr. Sandburg, light and noise hurt him." There was a pause, and then, "Jimmy, he wants to know -"
"No. 'M here."
"He says he's lucid...yes, I think he heard you...Jimmy -?"
"No. I'm ok."
"He says nothing's tingling or burning...All right. If you think that will help."
There was another long pause and Stephen glanced in the mirror. His father was holding the phone out, away from his ear. For just a moment their eyes met and then Stephen turned his attention back to the road.
As they turned into the shadow of the Sixth St. Bridge, Jim said, "He's gone. We lost the connection." William closed the phone and tucked it in beside the door. They were close now. Jim's condo was just five blocks up from the bridge. Almost home...
But as they started across the bridge, the metal grate of the roadway sent a vibration and a high-pitched wail through the car. It would barely have merited notice, except at the same moment, Jim cried out and sat bolt upright, both hands clawing at his head. Stephen could only afford a quick glance back; the bridge traffic was heavy and fairly fast. Dear God, what a nightmare. He couldn't help them. There was no place to pull off. There was nothing.
"Jimmy! It'll be over in a moment. It's all right."
"Dad..." And that wasn't James Ellison's voice, begging his father, of all people, for help. That couldn't be Jim, the football allstar, the army hero, cop of the year. That couldn't be Jim.
And then they were off the bridge and the silence came sudden and shocking. The back seat was quiet, too, and Stephen checked the mirror. Jim was still, face down in Dad's lap, while Dad sheltered Jim's ears with cupped hands. "Home soon, son. I promise."
It was Sunday, and the quiet street nearly empty, so Stephen found a parking spot just a few feet from the door. Remembering the elevator at the plaza, they took Jim up the stairs. Slowly. Jim was sweating and unsteady. How much of this was his senses and how much from the bad fish, Stephen couldn't guess. At the door, Jim leaned on Stephen and handed his father the keys.
"Bathroom?" Stephen suggested, but Jim just shook his head and stumbled toward the couch.
"I'll be ok. Really. I'm...sorry I messed up your birthday, Dad. Why don't you go on home." And he tried to smile, even though his eyes wouldn't focus and his skin was the color of skim milk. The idea of leaving him like this was deeply wrong, but Jim clearly didn't not want them here, and after all, what could they do for him?
"Stephen, go bring me a wet washcloth." Without waiting for a reply, William went to the couch. "Close your eyes, son. Why don't you lie down?"
"It doesn't matter. Just close your eyes. I think you're just going to have to wait this out. I know you can do that." His tone was hard, the uncompromising voice that had ruled their childhood, but as Stephen came out of the bathroom he saw his father's face. The old man looked lost and terrified. He took the washcloth from Stephen's hands and laid it over Jim's eyes. Jim flinched as the cold cloth touched him, but then brought up his hand and pressed it down tighter.
"What do we do?" Stephen mouthed.
Dad shook his head, and then, in a surreal gesture, reached out and gripped Stephen's arm as tightly as a shipwreck victim would grip a floating log.
On the couch, Jim took a sudden, deep breath. "He's coming."
A moment later they could all hear running feet in the hall and the door flew open. Sandburg acknowledged William and Stephen only enough to nudge them out of the way. He dropped to his knees beside the couch, whispering, "Hey, buddy."
"Hi." Jim's hand fumbled along the front of the couch, seeking Sandburg's.
"Food poisoning? You're kidding me, right?" The tone was light, but very, very quiet.
"Mussels were spicy. Had things turned down. Weren't very good." How had Stephen missed that Jim didn't like them?
"Shellfish? Boy, you don't fool around, do you?" Sandburg was pushing up Jim's sleeve, examining the skin underneath. Without glancing up, he asked, "Mr. Ellison, will you call the restaurant and find out just how bad this is and if we need to take him to the emergency room?"
"Blair, no. Please."
"Shhh. It's ok, Jim. Stephen, close the blinds and bring me one of the queen size sheets from the linen closet. Jim, you're reacting to your clothes. I need to get you out of them. Come on. Sit up for me." The rest was lost as Stephen raced to do as he'd been told. It was a tremendous relief to have someone in charge who had a clue about what was going on and what to do. So this was what it meant, that Sandburg was an expert in sentinels. This was why Jim had refused to send him away, even after he'd made a public spectacle of their family.
When Stephen came back with the sheet, Blair was untying Jim's shoes and still speaking softly. "Slow it down, buddy. And hold it. And out. Nice and slow. You're doing fine. Here, Stephen, help me with his pants." Jim's shirt was already off, and Stephen could see red welts coming out.
"Is that from food poisoning?"
"No, from the sensory spike. He's reacting to his clothes. Come help me with this." How did Sandburg manage to sound impatient and encouraging at the same time? They removed Jim's pants and resettled him on the couch, wrapped lightly in the silky sheet. "Stephen? That white box on the bookshelf that looks like a small radio - turn it on, will you?"
Dad came back, still holding the phone. "The health department is already involved. It's too early to be sure what it is, but they have ruled out something called PSP, and they think it's not domoic acid poisoning. If he has disorientation or trouble breathing or...seizures, he needs to go to the hospital. Or if the nausea and cramps aren't better by tomorrow."
"Jeeze, Ellison," Sandburg whispered, but he was leaning over Jim, shielding his ears with almost the same gesture that Dad had used before.
"Sorry, I'm sorry. They didn't taste right. I just thought they weren't very good."
"It's not your fault. Don't worry about it."
"Ruined Dad's birthday."
"Nobody's mad at you. Could have happened to anybody. Don't worry about it. Just do your breathing and try to relax."
*My indestructible big brother,* Stephen thought, suddenly remembering the night his father had called to say that he'd gotten a visit from the army. It was the first and only time he'd ever heard William Ellison cry. Stephen hadn't cried. He'd stayed up late into the night, telling himself over and over that they'd made their choices long before and they would never have been friends anyway. He hadn't cried then, but he might very well cry now. "Can't we take him to a doctor?"
It was Dad who answered, not Sandburg. "No. Not when it's like this. He can't handle that. But...it shouldn't be like this. Nothing like this ever happened when he was a child." He turned to Sandburg. "This *shouldn't* happen. You're supposed to be the expert here. That's your job. Why is it this bad? This didn't happen when he was a child."
"Gee, I don't know. Maybe being forced to repress his senses for twenty years fucked up his control."
Jim flinched, but whether from the tone or the content Stephen couldn't tell. Sandburg immediately backed down, dropping his head and murmuring something inaudible. William took an unsteady step backward, and Stephen reached for his arm.
"You have to believe me," William said shakily. "I thought...I thought he'd grow out of it anyway. There wasn't any point..."
Sandburg looked up in astonishment and suppressed disgust. "Grow out of it? Where would you get a -- " he choked, obviously editing himself, "an idea like that?"
"*I* did," William whispered. "I grew out of it, and I just assumed..."
"Aw, God," Sandburg whispered, and dropped his head onto Jim's shoulder. "Oh, shit." Jim wrapped his arms around Sandburg's waist and pulled him closer. They whispered together for a moment, Sandburg crouching over Jim, almost shielding him with his body. Protective. It struck Stephen, suddenly, just how far the former student was willing to go to protect Jim.
When Blair spoke again, his voice was steady. "Stephen, now is not the time to have this conversation. Take your father home. Please, Stephen." And then suddenly, Sandburg pulled back, barely getting out of the way as Jim surged upward. He managed only a couple of steps toward the bathroom before stumbling, but Blair caught the taller, broader man and hustling him forward, saying over his shoulder: "Take him home, Stephen. We'll deal with this later."
For all their hurry, the bathroom door closed quietly. Trying not to listen to the retching inside, Stephen tugged his father's hand and guided him toward the door. Stephen thought to engage the lock before pulling the door closed after them.
They took the stairs. Mechanically. Silently. On the second landing, Dad stumbled, catching himself on the wall with one hand and covering his face with the other. "Dear, God, Stephen. You have to believe me. I didn't know. I didn't know he could keep them...I didn't know they could be this bad. I didn't know. I didn't know."
How the hell did Jim manage as a cop? Stephen thought of his big brother, tossed out of trains and hanging on to the skids of helicopters. How did he do it? But this kind of ...incapacitation couldn't be frequent, could it? He'd read the selections of Blair's dissertation that had been published in the local papers. Nothing there had even hinted at this. And yet - when Blair had arrived, he'd been upset, but not surprised. *My thesis "The Sentinel" is a fraud.* How much of the truth had he told, even then? How big a part of Jim's life was this nightmare?
"Jimmy, oh, God..."
"Dad." Stephen winced and put a hand firmly on his father's shoulder. "Dad, stop. I'm sure he can hear us." He squeezed the shoulder, awkwardly. "Blair was...Blair was right. He can't deal with us right now. Come on, Dad, let's go."
Dad clamped his teeth together and nodded. He walked briskly down the stairs, without breaking stride or looking back.
At the car he retrieved his keys, to all appearances calm and alert. Stephen wondered, briefly, if letting Dad drive was a good idea, but he was checking his mirrors, watching the road, using his blinkers. Fit to drive, despite just having left his older son in such - he stopped the thought. Going all to pieces wouldn't do any good. Jim would be ok. He would. Jim could beat anything. And he had help. Blair -
How competent was Sandburg, really? He knew more about this than anybody else, but what, exactly, did that mean? Was what he knew enough to get Jim through something like this? Was he well meaning, but incompetent and careless? Or was he really quite capable and the whole disaster when he allowed his dissertation to get out just some kind of fluke?
Stephen really had no idea. And right now Sandburg's competence wasn't an academic question. Right now, Jim was helpless.
"Here we are."
Stephen looked up. Across the street was the Commerce Bank, and here was his car.
"Oh. Yeah. Look, Dad - "
"I'm sure everything is going to be fine."
"Yeah. Yeah. You ok to go home?"
A stiff nod. Stephen got out of the car, but as he turned to close the door, Dad said, "Stephen - ?"
Something sad and terrible flashed across William's face. Then he steadied. "Drive carefully."
Stephen nodded and closed the door.
He drove around for a while. No destination in mind, just...going. Circles, almost. Not too far from Jim's place. After an hour and a half, Gail called. He told her about the food poisoning. No details, but he said he wanted to check on things before coming home. He realized, as he shut the phone, her approval still ringing in his ears, that he was, in fact, already headed back to Jim's condo.
In the hallway he knocked very quietly and waited, arms folded in tight, for an answer from within. He didn't want to disturb them if they were...busy. He didn't want to abandon them if things were, well, rough.
The door opened and Blair peeked out, motioning Stephen to be quiet. "I just got him to sleep."
"How's he doing?"
A tired, unhappy shrug. "Better."
"I, um. I stopped by to see if you needed something. Maybe someone to make a trip to the store or something?"
Blair gave another shrug and opened the door wider. Hesitantly, Stephen followed Blair inside, watched as he took a mug down, set it next to a teapot and cup already out on the table, and then sat heavily, slumping, his chin resting on his hands. "Sorry. Not much of a host today. All I've got is tea."
Stephen didn't move toward the cup; he felt awkward, like an intruder. He'd seen Blair more than a few times over the last couple of years. He couldn't remember seeing him subdued. "I, well, I would have just called, but I thought if I was actually standing here you might be more likely to take me up on the offer." He tried to smile charmingly while delivering this inadequate excuse. He tried to look humble and non-threatening.
Blair sighed and twisted his head to look up at him. "You came by because you had the shit scared out of you, and you wanted to tell him you love him in case he's about keel over," he said dully.
Stephen didn't know what to say to that so he poured a cup of the tea and sat down.
"Sorry," Blair muttered into his own cup. "I just don't have the energy to whitewash things, you know?" He tilted his head up and assessed Stephen openly. "Don't worry. He's not. He's not in serious trouble, it just feels like it." He sighed.
Stephen swallowed. "How, um. Does this happen a lot?"
"Two or three times a year. It used to be worse." Blair drained his tea and pushed the cup away. His eyes were red.
Stephen tasted the tea. It was sour and unpleasant. He could just see the back of Jim's head resting on the arm of the couch. "How does he manage? I mean, he functions as a cop. I've seen him."
"Oh, no. It isn't like this...I mean, from day to day, yeah, we have to be *careful*, but when he's on his game he can go to the firing range, eat vindaloo, wear clothes that have been dry cleaned...." Another sigh, this time accompanied by a sad glance at the couch.
"I had no idea, you know?" Stephen whispered. "When we were kids...I don't remember anything unusual. I don't remember him being...special." He very carefully did not say 'different.'
Blair sighed again. "There was no reason why you would. You had nothing to compare him to. Of course you took him for granted."
"Yeah. Exactly. I took him for granted." He took a swallow of the vile tea so he would have an excuse to avoid Blair's eyes. Still, he said more than he meant to: "He liked me then."
"Look - you know he doesn't blame you, right? He really is basically ok with the whole you and him thing." Another sigh, "Oh, hell. I really shouldn't have said that to your father. That was so not useful. I was just...mad, you know?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about it. Everybody was under a lot of...stress."
"Yeah. Yeah. Look, Stephen, can you do me a favor? I went jogging before the firing range. I'm getting pretty ripe. Would you stay here while I shower? Just in case?"
"Sure. No problem." He said it with a confidence he didn't feel. As it turned out, he was right to be uncertain. No sooner had the shower started then the still form on the couch stirred and started to sit up.
"Blair?" Jim asked quietly.
Stephen glanced hurriedly at the closed bathroom door. Should he get Sandburg now, before he had a chance to get wet?
Before he could move, Jim said, a little louder, "Stephen?"
"Oh. Yeah, Jim, it's me." Nervously, he walked around to the other side of the couch where Jim could see him. "Blair's in the shower. I can get him, if you need him."
"Nah. Let him wash. He was starting to reek." Jim's eyes were only slitted open, but he smiled faintly and lowered his head back down. One of his arms was uncovered, and Stephen could see the rash that had been so bright had faded to a dull pink. He wondered what Blair had done to fix that. "I can't hear him. Are they turned on?"
"White noise. They must be..."
Stephen swallowed, stepped closer. "How do you feel?"
Another small smile. "You don't want to know." He changed the subject quickly. "I'm pretty sure you left before?"
"Oh. Well. You know." He was going to say that he'd stopped by to see if Jim and Blair had needed anything. What came out was, "You scared the hell out of me and I wanted to...make sure you were all right."
"Fine, really...just one of those days." But it didn't sound very convincing.
"Do you need...can I get you anything? Water?"
But Jim's eyes were already closing, and by the time Stephen finished the question, his brother seemed asleep. Stephen sat down on the other couch to wait for Blair to finish his shower. The figure Jim made under the blanket was...well, not exactly *small*. The immediacy, the reality of it all almost made Jim seem larger than ever. Close and solid and big in his stillness. But not larger than life. Not a hero or an image or a paragon of anything. He was just exactly life-size.
Jim frowned and stirred. "What's that noise?" He blinked at Stephen briefly, then shut his eyes again. "Stephen? What are you still doing here? Where's - ? Blair has you babysitting." He sighed, then said slowly, "You don't actually have to sit there and stare at me." But he didn't really seem to be paying attention to Stephen. He was frowning hard and his eyes were still shut.
"Jim? Are you ok?"
"What is that noise? It sounds like some kind of power tool. Is someone running a belt sander?" Jim reached up to cover his ears, and Stephen glanced at the bathroom door. Closed.
"Can't you hear that?"
"No. I can't hear it."
Jim's face screwed up. The noise Stephen couldn't hear was somehow hurting Jim. He opened his mouth to call for Blair, but realized at the last moment that making a loud noise would probably not help.
"Jim," he breathed, kneeling close to the couch. He put his hands over Jim's, trying to form the same kind of cups that Dad and Blair had. Jim flinched at his touch and Stephen pulled back. "What can I do? What would Blair do?"
"Tell me to breathe."
"Tell you to breathe?" That sounded amazingly unhelpful.
Jim shuddered. "Demanding son of a bitch, huh?" he tried to smile.
"Are you breathing now?" Stephen hazarded.
"Not real well." He was panting, fast and shallow. Apparently this didn't qualify as 'well.'
Stephen cast a longing look toward the bathroom door. He could not call out for help, dared not leave Jim. Why was Sandburg taking so long?
*Gee, maybe he imagines I could last for ten minutes by myself.*
Jim flinched and pushed his head harder into the pillow.
"Why don't you talk to me, Jim? Tell me something."
"The little girl in the corner apartment has a kitten in a box in her bedroom. Her mom doesn't know," Jim murmured obediently.
"My God, what a parent you'd make. A kid couldn't get away with anything!"
"You never did.... Always knew where you were."
Stephen felt scared - sweaty and a little sick. "Keep talking to me."
Jim's eyes opened, slammed shut again. "It's gone. I can't hear it any more. Did it stop?"
"The sander? I don't know." Jim was calmer now, but Stephen was still afraid. What was he thinking, agreeing to this? There was no way he was up to dealing with Jim in trouble. No way in the world.
With his eyes still closed, Jim caught hold of Stephen's forearm. "'S ok. Breathe. 'M ok."
"Oh, yeah. Fantastic." He tried to smile, to sound as if he were unconcerned.
Jim tried to smile back. "Just a little spike. No big deal."
"Just a little spike. Bet this happens all the time."
"Never. Almost never...you shouldn't have seen this. You'll worry."
Stephen couldn't answer that. He *should* say something, but what, exactly, would be appropriate? Yes, Jim, it's no big deal, after all, your being in pain isn't actually important? No, Jim, it is a big deal; it's so terrible you might as well give up now?
But Jim, of course, wasn't defeated by words any more than he was defeated by anything else. He squeezed the arm he was still holding and said, "It's ok. Really. Food poisoning just goes on the list." It sounded like Jim was comforting him.
"On the list?"
A faint smile. "Things not to do."
"Yeah, that...that sounds good to me. Things not to do. No more food poisoning."
"It's ok. Don't worry."
"Stephen?" And Jim was clearly asking for something. Stephen just didn't have a clue what it was. What could he do? What did Jim want? "It's ok."
He did know, then, what Jim wanted. Or he was pretty sure, anyway. Sure enough to say anything? He wished Jim's eyes were open. "Yeah. It's ok. You haven't scared me away." Jim swallowed, still holding onto Stephen's arm. "Just a little food poisoning, right? Really bad luck. That's all. No reason to panic."
Jim sighed, and whispered something Stephen couldn't make out.
"Why don't you go back to sleep?" Jim was already sliding away. Was it sleep? Or just a moment of rest? Stephen watched his brother's face, afraid the reprieve might end at any moment. After several long, silent minutes, Stephen carefully lifted Jim's hand and placed it back on his chest. It was too hard to think - or maybe too frightening to think - so he just sat on the coffee table waiting, hoping that Jim wouldn't wake again and watching for any sign that he was.
When the bathroom door opened he nearly jumped. Blair came out quietly in a cloud of steam. He had sweats on and a towel draped over his wet head. His eyes questioned Stephen, frowned at what they saw. As Blair came around the couch, Jim stirred, making Stephen anxious. Was he waking again? But Jim stilled when Blair touched his shoulder. Silent and graceful and apparently calm, Blair collected Stephen and installed him back at the table before filling the kettle and turning on the stove. "Did he wake up?" He whispered when he sat down.
A sigh. "I was hoping he would settle down."
"Can we do anything?"
Blair looked surprised, but at what he didn't say. "The worst is over, I think. Unless the, you know, stomach thing starts up again. And even then," Blair shrugged. "Thanks for the shower, anyway." Stephen couldn't see that it had done much good; he still looked like hell.
"He was afraid I couldn't handle it. That I would run away." He hadn't meant to say that and could only imagine that he had the courage to at all because he hadn't given it too much thought first.
But Sandburg just nodded thoughtfully and asked, "Couldn't handle him being different or couldn't handle him being sick?"
"Hell, I don't know. All of it, I guess."
Another nod. "Can you handle it?"
"It doesn't really matter whether *I* can or not."
"Oh, yes, it does." Suddenly Blair was right there in his face, furiously angry and impossibly quiet. "Because so help me, Stephen, if you hurt him - "
It was a ridiculous idea, that a man who had survived today and called it 'no big deal' could be hurt by Stephen. Jim, the cop of the year who actually managed to use those dangerous, painful senses on the job would surely barely notice Stephen as a blip on the radar. And yet, there was no doubt that Blair was correct. Stephen could hurt him. "I can handle it," he whispered.
Blair nodded sharply and got up to shut off the tea kettle before it whistled. "What day this week are you free for dinner? You can bring Gail and Jenny. If you'd prefer I not be here I can go to a movie." He met Stephen's gaze, even while delivering that last sentence. Maybe he was just too weary to be embarrassed, but he had been the same all day; direct, accepting, unashamed. He hadn't been cowed by William or discomfited by Jim's illness. Even when he had been removing Jim's clothes he had not flinched back from anything.
Looking at him, Stephen couldn't flinch either. "No, that's ok. I mean. I'd like you to be here. You're welcome. Well of course you're welcome. It's your home." So much for not flinching. But Sandburg laid a hand on his shoulder, silencing his whispered fumblings.
"Thursday. Fine. We'll see you then. In the meantime, why don't you go on home. It's been a long day."
Stephen nodded and let Blair steer him to the door. All the way down the stairs he thought about how odd it seemed, that even though the door had just shut behind him, he felt as though it had just opened.