Crossroads Epilogue

Simon parked the car in a space close to the loft's front entrance and looked at his sleeping passenger. Sandburg had chattered incessantly for the first half hour of the trip back to Cascade, then, rather suddenly, had quieted, laying his head against the window and closing his eyes. He hadn't woken since.

A concerned frown marred Simon's face, and he placed a hand on Sandburg's forehead. Yep. Kid feels hot, all right. His frown deepened. He and Sandburg had left Clayton Falls with very little information about what kind of toxin Fisker and his men had dumped in the town's water supply. Stupid! He dropped his hand from Sandburg's forehead and shook his head, silently admonishing himself. He didn't even know whether the "toxin" had been a chemical or a bug. And what if it was a bug? Sure, the residents of Clayton Falls seemed to be recovering, but...

Oh hell. Hospital it is. He started the engine, but a groan from his right stopped him from putting the car into gear. He shifted to look at Blair.

"Sandburg?"

"Huh?" Blair's eyes opened, and he blinked at Simon. Recognition brightened his face, and he straightened, looking out the window. "We home already?"

"Yeah." He studied the young man. Blair looked pale, but he wasn't sweating like he had when his symptoms had first started. Maybe all he needs is rest. Still, a hospital wouldn't hurt. "We're back in Cascade, but I think we should make a detour to Cascade General. Get you checked out."

Blair shook his head. "Nah. Thanks, Simon, but I'm okay. Just tired."

"It won't hurt..."

"What are they gonna do? We'd have a very long story to explain, and we can't tell them very much about what those guys put in the water system." His brow creased, and his gaze grew questioning. "Can we? Did she say?"

Simon shook his head. "No. If she did, I guess I wasn't listening. The people were getting better, and I just wanted to get the hell out of there."

Sandburg nodded, giving in to a yawn. His eyes teared slightly, and he rubbed them, tilting his head back against the seat. "Yeah, I'm with you there." He dropped his hands to his lap and flashed a weak grin at Simon. "All I want to do is hit the sack. I'm totally wiped, and I do not want to spend the next six hours in an E.R. just to have some doctor tell me to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids."

Simon shook his head and put the car into gear. "I think we'd better go, anyway. Just to be safe."

Blair popped the lock on his seatbelt and opened his door. "Thanks, Simon, but no thanks."

"Sandburg!" Simon jerked the lever back to PARK. "Get back in the car!"

"No way." He flashed another maddening grin. "If I feel worse, I'll call you for a ride to the E.R. Okay?" He opened the rear door and grabbed his backpack and duffel bag from the back seat. "Thanks, Simon." Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he gave Simon a wave, then turned and walked toward the entrance, his gait somewhat uneven from the weight of his burden.

Simon sighed. Hell, even without the bags, the kid looks like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He watched Sandburg disappear into the building, debating over whether or not to get out of the car and follow.

Nah. He's right. Rest would probably be the best thing for him. And I sure as hell ain't his father -- thank god! He gave a half-hearted chuckle at that thought. If he doesn't want to go to the hospital, I can't force him.

Shifting the car into gear, he pulled away from the loft, heading toward his own home and his own soft, warm bed.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"Oh man." Blair kicked the door closed and dropped his bags, leaning against the wall as he fought off another wave of nausea. Damn. He didn't even have anything in his stomach to throw up... and maybe that was the problem.

Staggering into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a piece of bread from the loaf, then quickly resealed the package and closed the door.

Nibbling on the bread -- something he hoped would be easy on his stomach -- he made his way to his room and sat on the edge of the futon. Taking small bites, he chewed each morsel well before swallowing. After the last bite, he flopped on to his back and lay still and silent for a few seconds, waiting to see whether his stomach revolted.

Thankfully, his small snack seemed content to stay down, and with a sigh, he curled on to his side and closed his eyes. Sleep beckoned him, but his mind resisted, his thoughts going back to Clayton Falls... and Jim.

"You're always in my face... observing."

A pang twisted in his chest. Okay, man. I got the hint. He knew what Jim had meant -- he needed space. Jim was a solitary man by nature, private and reserved. He needed a sanctuary, a place of his own. Doesn't mean he's tired of having me around, just means maybe I'm around a bit too much. Hell, we spend more time together than married couples. That's bound to create a strain on the friendship.

His dilemma resolved, he wanted to get to work immediately. Pushing himself out of bed, he stretched the ache from his back and walked into the living room, grabbing the cordless from the end table. Just hope I'm not too late.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The alarm woke him, and Simon opened his eyes with a groan, glancing at the clock. As the fog lifted from his brain, he muttered a soft curse. He'd forgotten to turn off his alarm before heading to Clayton Falls, and even though he'd returned to Cascade early, he still had a few days of vacation left.

Slapping the annoying buzzer off, he rolled toward the wall, pulling the covers over his head. He'd just about drifted off when something between a conscious thought and a dreamy image popped into his head -- a pale, sweating Sandburg laying on a gurney being rushed into a tent.

Damn. He sat up and threw the covers off, swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress. He wouldn't get back to sleep until he'd at least checked on Sandburg. Grabbing the phone on the nightstand, he dialed the loft, listening to ring after ring until the machine answered.

Great. He's probably asleep and too tired to answer the phone. He listened for the beep, then left his message, hoping his voice would cut through Sandburg's slumber. He didn't want to wake Blair, but he had to at least check to make sure the kid was all right.

"Sandburg, it's Banks. Pick up the phone... C'mon. Sandburg... You there?" He paused, waiting. "Okay, fine. I'll call back in a bit if I don't hear from you... and if I can't get a hold of you I'm coming over there to drag your ass to the hospital. Got that? So you'd better damn well give me a call when you get this." He nodded and hung up the phone. He'd sounded authoritative enough. No possible way Sandburg would blow him off after hearing that message. Even if I'm not his Captain, I'm still his boss... Just gotta get that through his thick skull. He smiled and lay back, hoping to reclaim sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Oh God, let me die... Blair collapsed onto his futon. It was the only piece of furniture in the small loft apartment, surrounded by a dozen boxes of various sizes and a few garbage bags stuffed with clothes and whatever else he'd figured would be safe enough in them.

He hated moving. He'd done it enough, but he still hated the packing and the carrying and the unpacking. To top it off, he felt like shit, and since Jim was out of town, he had no one to help him move. He'd tried a couple of his friends at the university, but since his move was a spur of the moment sort of thing, none of them were available --- or, if they were, they wouldn't admit it.

So, he'd packed and carried most of his stuff by himself. He still had a few boxes left in the loft, but he'd get to them in a bit. He just needed to rest. The futon -- which had been a bitch to move by himself -- didn't make for the most comfortable mattress, but for some reason it seemed harder than usual, making his legs and back hurt. Or maybe that's just from the moving, dummy.

He'd love to take a shower, but his water wasn't turned on yet, and no way did he want to make the trip back up to the loft. Hell, he was too tired to move... He just wished his utilities were turned on. The apartment was stuffy, and the temperature seemed to fluctuate between freezing and sweltering. He'd open the doors to the small balcony to let some fresh air in, then end up shivering from the frigid wind, then he'd close them and the place would become as hot as the Sahara.

Shifting to ease the aching of his legs and back, he tried to push all worries from his mind and let sleep claim him, but he couldn't quiet his thoughts. He wondered how Jim would react when he came home and found the loft all to himself. Week's been up a long time, Jim. You've been way more than generous.

He also worried about his finances. This small apartment was only $600 a month. It was a studio, with a tiny bathroom and an even tinier kitchen. He'd been paying $800 a month for a large warehouse before moving into the loft, but he'd gotten used to the lower rent and shared utilities since moving in with Jim. Now he'd have to start scrimping again.

Not a problem. I've been doing that most of my life. I can get back in the habit... No more fancy teas or expensive herbs. No more cell phone. I'll cancel that Monday. Start doing some tutoring again -- make a bit of extra money on the side. No problem. Cut down on the utilities... keep the heat off.

It's too damn hot in here, anyway. Man... what's up with that? Is there, like, a furnace gone mad somewhere? He rolled over, lifting his shoulders long enough to pull his damp T-shirt over his head. The wet denim of his jeans clung to his legs, and he wiggled out of the them, letting them fall to the floor.

It was still hot. Too damn hot. Should get up and open the balcony doors... Before he could act on that thought, sleep pulled him down, but in his dream world he got up, opened the doors, and stood on the tiny balcony, letting the icy pacific northwest wind blast the sweat from his body.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Damnit! Simon hung up the phone and grabbed a jacket from his closet. He still hadn't gotten hold of Sandburg, and he was now officially worried. Trotting into the living room, he grabbed his keys from the coffee table and hurried to his car.

Traffic proved surprisingly light, and he made the drive to the loft in under fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, he couldn't find a space close to the building and had to park at the far end of the visitor's lot. Jogging into the building, he decided not to wait for the elevator and took the short flights up to the loft.

Panting slightly from the exertion, he stopped in front of his friends' apartment and knocked hard. He heard no sounds coming from inside and tried a several more hard knocks.

"Sandburg! You in there?" When no answer came, he tried the doorknob, surprised when it actually turned and the door swung inward. "Sandburg?"

He took one step inside and stopped cold. Oh, hell... Three large boxes lined the floor behind the couch, two labeled 'books' in black marker. The third box had 'audio/visual' written on the top and sides. The French doors to the bedroom hung wide open, revealing a sparse, lifeless room. Simon could see Blair's desk and bureau, but nothing else. He moved further into the apartment until he could see the entire bedroom. The futon was gone. The closet doors hung open, the rack empty.

Shit. He did it. He moved out. Did he get in touch with Ellison? Does Jim know? Simon frowned. The situation didn't feel right. There was something.... wrong. Out of place. He mulled over that thought for a few seconds before things began to click into place.

Sandburg had looked one shade darker than a corpse when he'd left the car and hurried into the loft. No way the kid should have had the energy to do this much packing in so short a time. And the door... it had been left unlocked. Sandburg might be foolish with the spare keys, but he wasn't so blatantly careless with Jim's things as to leave the loft completely unsecured.

Maybe he just stepped out for a second... What did he say? Something about the loft below... So maybe he's coming right back.

Well, that idea was easy enough to check out. He turned and walked out of the loft, leaving the door unlocked since he didn't have a key. Ducking back into the staircase, he hurried down the single flight of stairs, emerging onto the second floor. He saw three doors, two on the left and one on his right. Sandburg had mentioned the loft below... and Simon hoped he'd meant directly below. He eyed the door closest to him, pretty sure that was the apartment directly beneath Jim's. The numbers 203 hung from the wood, and he knocked just below them.

No answer.

He fidgeted. He sure as hell couldn't try the knob. If it turned out not to be Sandburg's apartment, he could very well end up scaring the hell out whoever lived there, if they were home and either asleep or simply choosing not to answer.

He decided to move on to the second door. This time he knocked several times. He heard shuffling on the other side, and a female voice asked, "Who is it?"

He swallowed. That obviously wasn't Sandburg... unless it was one of his girlfriends... He almost grinned at that thought, but the worry that had spurred him to the lower floor kept his face grim.

"Uh, my name is Captain Simon Banks. I'm with the Cascade P.D. I'm a friend of Detective James Ellison and Blair Sandburg. They live on the floor..."

The door opened, and Simon found himself face-to-face with a woman a foot shorter than himself. She had strawberry blond hair, pulled back in a pony tail and light brown eyes. She looked no older than thirty as she smiled up at him. "Yeah, I kind of know Blair." She jerked her chin toward the first apartment. "I saw him moving some stuff next door. Said he was changing apartments. He didn't look like he was feeling too good, though."

Simon nodded. "Thank you, Miss. When did you see him/'

She shrugged. "Couple hours ago, I guess."

"Thank you." He pointed to apartment 203 as he moved away. "Right here?"

She nodded. "Yep."

"Thanks again."

"No problem." With a final smile, she closed the door.

Simon moved back to the first door and knocked hard, but still he received no answer. Finally, his concern growing, he tried the handle. It, too, turned easily, and he pushed the door inward and stepped into chaos. The apartment was surprisingly small, littered with boxes of various sizes and bags filled to capacity. One box lay with its top open, crumpled newspaper pages strewn around it on the floor.

The small futon bed rested in the center of the living room, and the curled, shivering, half-naked figure of Blair Sandburg lay on top of the bare mattress.

"Damn! Sandburg!" He lunged forward, dropping to his knees next to Blair. "Come on, wake up." Giving Sandburg's shoulder a firm shake, his concern grew when he felt the heat pouring off of the young man. "Blair? Hey now, come on. Wake up."

He got only a groan from Blair in response.

Come on. Don't do this to me, Sandburg! He placed his palm on Blair's forehead. Too hot. Way too hot. He had no idea where, among all the packed boxes, Blair might have a thermometer, but he decided he didn't really need one. Although he couldn't tell exactly how high Sandburg's fever was, Simon knew it had to be over one hundred and three. He's either in the danger zone or way past it.

He looked around for a phone but didn't see one. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cellphone, rising to his feet as he dialed 911. The line rang twice, and he hurried toward the cramped bathroom, finding a shower but no tub. He cursed silently. He needed to get Sandburg submerged in a cold bath.

"Emergency Dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency?"

"This is Captain Simon Banks with the Cascade PD." He tried the faucet as he gave his badge number, but no water flowed from the spout. "Damn."

"Sir?"

"Uh, sorry. I'm at 852 Prospect Ave, apartment 203... Make that 307." He'd carry Blair up to Jim's apartment and get the kid into a cold bath while he waited for the paramedics. "I've got a sick man in need of immediate attention. He's unconscious, high fever, shivering." He moved back into the living room as he relayed the information about Clayton Falls and the toxin.

"Okay, sir, the ambulance is on its way."

"Great. I've got to hang up now. I'll leave the apartment door open for them. We'll be in the bathroom when they get here, but I'll be listening for them." He hung up without waiting for a response and dropped the phone back in to his pocket. Cursing himself for leaving Blair alone yesterday, he stooped and grabbed Sandburg's arms, pulling the lighter man up. Balancing Sandburg over his shoulder, he stumbled out of the small apartment, taking the elevator up to the third floor.

He was panting again by the time he staggered into the loft and lowered Blair carefully into the tub. He lay Sandburg's head on the end away from the faucet, then plugged the drain and turned on the cold water. Having the water rise over Sandburg's body would ease the shock to the young man's system while helping to lower his body temperature. He hoped.

As the water level rose, it seemed to prod Sandburg toward consciousness. He moaned, his eyelids fluttering open to reveal confused, blue eyes.

"Sandburg?" Simon placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "You with me?'

Something between a groan and a whine escaped Sandburg, and he tensed as he came more awake. Looking down at the water, he tried to sit up, but Simon kept his hand firmly on Blair's shoulder.

"No, just stay still."

"C-Cold." Blair struggled weakly to sit, but managed only to slip further beneath the water.

"Come on, Sandburg. Easy." Simon shifted his hand to grab Blair's arm, this time keeping Sandburg from dipping completely below the surface of the water. "It's okay. Just relax."

"No... C-Cold." His eyes locked briefly with Simon's, but there was no recognition behind them. "Killing me... Get me out.... C-Cold." He flailed with his free arm, kicking with his legs and sending water splashing over the edge of the tub and all over Simon. "Stop... Stop it!"

"Sandburg, cut it out! Come on, ease up. It's okay." He used both hands to keep hold of Sandburg, eyeing the water level as it threatened to rise completely over the rim. "Shit.." If he let go of Sandburg to shut off the water, the kid could end up hurting himself.

He was saved from his dilemma when he heard shouting.

"Hello? Somebody call an ambulance?!"

Simon's shoulders sagged with relief, but he kept his firm grip on Sandburg. "In here!"

Moments later, two paramedics burst into the small bathroom, one carrying a tool box. Simon glanced back at them.

"He's burning up. I put him in here to help combat his fever, but he's delirious and fighting me."

The first EMT nodded, a young man with dark hair and glasses. "Okay, sir, it's kind of cramped in here, so if you could wait in the hall, we'll take over."

With a grateful nod, Simon complied, squeezing past the two men. He watched as they subdued Sandburg, who continued to struggle weakly, seemingly oblivious to anything except the fact that he was cold and wet.

Swallowing hard as he tried to tune out Blair's semi-hysterical cries for help, Simon moved into the living room and grabbed the phone. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet and found the slip of paper with the veterinarian's phone number. Dialing quickly, he was relieved when Doctor Conway picked up on the second ring.

"Hello, Doctor, this is Simon Banks. I need to get in touch with Detective Ellison..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim Ellison rammed through the doors of Cascade General and stormed to the front desk, slapping his palms on the counter and startling the young woman sitting at her computer. "Blair Sandburg -- He was brought in by ambulance several hours ago."

The nurse adjusted her glasses as she looked up at him. "Uh, Sandburg?"

He nodded. "Yes. Yes."

She turned her attention back to her computer, typing quickly at her keyboard. "Yes, he's here. He was brought in to the E.R., but they've since admitted him. He's in critical care, third floor. Just go down the hall there," she pointed to her right, "and take those elevators. There'll be a desk to your right as you get off. The nurse on duty there will assist you."

"Thank you." Jim turned and jogged toward the elevators.

The doors opened as soon as he pressed the button, and he gave silent thanks for that favor. Fidgeting, he rode the lift upward until it came to a halt and the doors slid open. The nurse's station sat immediately to his right, and he hurried to the man sitting on duty.

"Excuse me." This time his voice sounded much calmer. "I was told you have a Blair Sandburg in critical care here. I'd..."

"Jim!"

Jim looked up to see Simon hurrying toward him. A small waiting area lay just behind the captain. I didn't even see him. He shook his head. I've got to focus.

He gave a nod. "Sir." Meeting the captain half-way, he glanced back at the nurse and waved a hand asking him to wait. Then he looked back at Simon. "How's Sandburg?"

Simon took a deep breath and steered Jim toward the waiting area. "He had a fever of a hundred and six when they brought him in." He shook his head, the lines in his forehead deepening. "I'm sorry, Jim. Damn, I knew I should have gotten him to a hospital the moment we got back to Cascade, but he refused. Stubborn kid, I swear." He swallowed hard. "I called to check on him a few times, and when today came and I hadn't heard from him, I decided to pay him a visit. He, uh... He wasn't at the loft. Seems he's moving in to the apartment below yours. That's where I found him. He'd set up his futon in the middle of the living room and he was laying there, shivering and unconscious."

Jim's jaw went slack and he took half a step backward. "He moved in one day? Damn... He took me too seriously. I didn't mean I didn't want him around. I just..."

"I know, Jim. Worry about that later. Right now, the last I heard, the doctor told me he's got a couple of infections raging. Did you bring...?"

"Yeah." Jim reached into his deep jacket pocket and pulled out a small bottle of water. "Right here. Doctor Conway said she isolated some kind of bacteria." With his free hand, he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, reading the words written there. Bacillus cereus and nitrites. She said these are associated with food poisoning, but they usually aren't lethal."

Simon nodded. "That's what the doctor said -- the Bacillus, anyway. It's one of the infections he has. The other is something viral, but the doctor seemed to think the virus came on first and the bacteria came later -- opportunistic, I think he said."

"What virus?"

"Just the flu."

Jim sighed, bringing a hand to rub at his temple. Just the flu...

"Jim? You okay?"

"Yeah." He straightened, turning toward the nurse's station and getting the attention of the man he'd spoken to earlier. "Uh, about Blair Sandburg." He placed the bottle on the counter. "I need to speak with his doctor. This is a sample of the water with the bacteria that got him sick."

The nurse nodded and picked up the phone. "I'll call him for you."

~~~~~~~~~~

Ten minutes later, a tall, wirey man wearing a white lab jacket came out to greet them. Simon and Jim rose from their seats as the man approached.

"I'm Doctor Shelling." He glanced at Simon, apparently recognizing him, then turned to Jim. "You have some samples for me?"

Jim nodded and grabbed the small water bottle from the table next to his seat. "Right here." He retrieved the paper from his pocket. "And this is the toxin it contains."

The doctor took the items and glanced down at the slip. "Yes, we isolated that. Didn't find the nitrites, though. At any rate, from the levels of nitrites, it should have been enough to cause only immediate, very temporary symptoms. The bacteria, though, hangs on a bit longer. It's usually not a lethal form, and most people with this type of food poisoning don't report it. The combination of bacteria and nitrites, though,  made him feel much worse than he would have with either alone." He sighed and looked back up at Jim. "But right now his system isn't fighting off the bacteria very well due to the influenza virus. His immune system is busy trying to deal with both. I think what happened is he got one first, then the other slipped in when his system was depressed. Captain Banks told me Mr. Sandburg also had some other stresses." A tiny smile lifted his lips. "I heard he was running through the woods chasing bad guys and getting shot at." He shook his head. "Then he came home and decided to move his entire apartment elsewhere."

Jim nodded. "It's been a rough couple of days."

"I imagine. Well, that's why this has hit him so hard. Stress depresses the immune system, which is why college students are notorious for getting sick right after finals." He offered another gentle smile. "But the good news is that, although Mr. Sandburg hasn't yet regained full consciousness, his bacterial infection is responding to the antibiotics. We've got him on an IV to keep him hydrated, and his fever has dropped to one hundred point five. I think he'll be out of here in a couple of days, maybe even as soon as tomorrow if his progress continues at this rate."

"Can I see him?"

Doctor Shelling shook his head. "Not right now. He's still in critical care, and our policy is to limit visitors to immediate family only. I expect to transfer him to a regular room by tomorrow morning. You can see him then."

Jim stiffened. "He has no family here, and given the scare he had in Clayton Falls, I think it would do him good to see a familiar face, don't you?"

"He's out right now, Detective. He wouldn't even know you're there."

"Is he unconscious or just sleeping?"

"At the moment he's in a very solid sleep --"

"Then when he wakes up, he'll need someone who isn't wearing a hospital uniform to tell him he's going to be okay. You don't understand, Doctor. A little over a day ago he thought he'd contracted a lethal virus. He was taken away into a tent with a bunch of guys in biohazard outfits who tried their best to keep him sedated and out of contact with everyone else, including me. Now, when he wakes up, he's going to wonder why he's in the hospital and whether there was more to that virus scare than we thought. A nurse or doctor telling him he's going to be okay might not exactly get the message across after the Clayton Falls. Now do you understand?"

Shelling sighed. "Yes, I understand. We'll be sure to do our best to reassure him if he wakes up before tomorrow morning. In the meantime, our policy is in place for a reason. He needs his rest, and the hospital staff needs to monitor him without interruptions. Please... If you'll just come back tomorrow morning, I promise you'll be able to see him then."

Jim opened his mouth to launch another protest when a heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Come on, Jim," Simon prodded. "Let's go home. Between the two of us, maybe we can even surprise the kid by getting his stuff set up in his new apartment since he's not going to be in any condition to do it himself when he's released."

Jim turned to face the captain, his shoulders slumping. "I'd forgotten about that."

Behind him, he heard the doctor utter a goodnight, his footsteps tapping a fast retreat on the tile floor.

"So let's go. We'll come back bright and early tomorrow morning."

Jim nodded. "All right, but we're not setting Sandburg's things up in his new apartment. We're moving everything back to the loft."

Simon frowned, his eyes narrowing with disapproval. "Look, Jim, that's something you really should discuss with Sandburg. He probably put a deposit down on the place already."

"Look, the only reason he moved out is because of what I said about him always being in my face. If he loses a deposit, I'll give it back to him. If he really wants to move out, I'll personally carry all his stuff back to his apartment. Right now, however, when he gets out of here, he's not going to be up and running one hundred percent. He's going to need some help, right? So, the best place for him at the moment is the loft."

"Jim, how would you feel if you'd landed an apartment, spent hours moving almost everything you own to your new apartment, and then your former roommate enters your apartment without your knowledge or consent and moves everything back to his place? Give Sandburg some respect. He's an adult entitled to make his own decisions. Once you talk to him, the two of you can decide what to do."

Jim stayed silent for a moment, studying his friend's face. Simon looked unlikely to change his mind. "Okay, sir. You're right. Tomorrow morning, I'll talk it over with him."

"Good. Glad to hear it. I'm sure he will be, too." He gestured toward the elevators. "Now, you want to head home? I can meet you here tomorrow at about nine."

Jim nodded. "Okay, I'll probably get here by eight." He forced a weak smile. "Thanks, Simon. Thanks for... Well, you know... checking in on him. You probably saved his life. I wasn't due back for another few days. With his infection, fever, and dehydration..." He swallowed, his chest suddenly tight. "Damn, it was too close."

"Yes it was." Simon's hand returned to Jim's shoulder. "But he's going to be okay. That's what counts." He gave Jim a gentle push toward the elevators. "Go home, Jim. Get some sleep. Come back tomorrow. Okay?"

"Yeah, okay." He nodded, absently following Simon to the elevators.

He'd follow Simon's advice and head home, but he knew for a fact he'd be getting little sleep that night.

~~~

When Jim entered the loft, he thought he'd prepared himself for the changes to the interior, but the emptiness hit him harder than he'd thought possible. He saw three of Blair's boxes resting behind the couch, gathering dust. The doors to the lower room were open, giving him a clear view of the inside. The futon was gone. Only the desk and the bureau remained.

In the living room, the changes were less drastic but still noticeable. A few pictures had been taken down. The kitchen counters looked cleaner than they had in a while. Presumably, Blair had taken the few kitchen utensils that belonged to him to his new apartment, along with his teas and other ingestables. He'd probably freed up at least one entire cabinet and put what had previously been overflow neatly on the shelves.

Damn, Chief, you didn't have to do this.

Jim resolved to set things right. He grabbed the phone from its cradle and dialed the property management company, grateful that they were open on Saturdays. He asked to speak with Beth. He and Sandburg had talked with her before, and they'd developed a decent professional relationship.

He found out that they'd given the apartment to Blair because they already knew him, and his deposit and rent check were due Monday. He thanked her and hung up, having gotten the information he needed.

Blair hadn't signed a lease yet, and he hadn't paid his deposit. That gave Jim the rest of the weekend to set things straight. He'd move Sandburg's stuff back into the loft. Then he'd talk things out with Blair, and if the kid still wanted to move in to the apartment downstairs, Jim would do all the grunt work for him. That way, Blair would still have the apartment if he decided he really wanted to move, but he'd know for sure he was welcome at the loft.

~~~~~~~

Blair opened his eyes to a bleary whiteness. He blinked several times, and as his vision cleared, he realized he was staring at a stark, white ceiling instead of the familiar yellow pipes of the loft. The panic of disorientation flared briefly, but quickly faded when he remembered he'd moved to a new apartment... but his new place was in the same building and had the same yellow pipes running across the ceiling.

With that revelation, the fog lifted from his brain, and he noticed the steady beeping to his left at the exact moment he realized he was laying in a hospital bed.

"Sandburg?"

Blair recognized the voice and turned his head to see Simon Banks sitting in a chair next to the bed. He tried to find enough energy to form a smile, but he suspected his attempt resulted in something more akin to a grimace. Perhaps he'd have more luck with speech. He swallowed, his throat tight and dry, and managed a soft croak. "Hey, S-Simon."

The captain smiled, leaning forward. "How are you feeling?"

"Been better." His eyelids felt much too heavy, and he let them drift closed. "Where's Jim?" As soon as he asked the question, he remembered Jim was still vacationing in Clayton Falls.

"I'm not sure. He was supposed to be here an hour and half ago. I was just about to call him, actually, but they won't let me use the cell phone in here."

Blair reveled in his self-inflicted darkness, flirting with sleep. "Go..." He wanted to ask more questions about why Jim was supposed to be at the hospital when he should have been out of town, but he didn't have the energy. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, making it difficult to form sentences. "Call."

~~~~~~~~~

Jim sat bolt upright on the first ring, blinking against the sunlight that penetrated the balcony windows and brightened the living room. His hand fumbled on the coffee table and knocked the phone to the floor. Rubbing a hand over his face to bring himself more awake, he leaned forward and grabbed the cordless.

"Ellison..."

"Jim, it's Simon. Why are you still home? I --"

"Damn!" He shot to his feet, glancing at the VCR clock. It was after 9:30, and he was supposed to be at the hospital well over an hour ago. "I fell asleep." He looked around the loft as he stifled a yawn. The pictures Blair had taken down were once again hanging on the walls, and all of his possessions were back where they belonged. It had taken him until nearly four in the morning to get everything moved and unpacked, and he had obviously fallen asleep on the couch. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm on way now..." He was about to hang up when a dreaded thought hit him like a punch in the gut. "How's Sandburg. You're calling because I'm late, right? Did you see him this morning?"

"He's fine, Jim." Simon sounded both relieved and amused. "Yes, I'm calling because you're late. Now get your ass over here. The kid's awake and has already asked about you."

~~~~~~~~

The drone of soft voices woke him, bringing to life the discomforts affecting various parts of his body, the most notable being his incredibly dry mouth. His tongue felt swollen and pasty, and he tried to swallow but couldn't gather enough saliva to wet his throat. Next on the list was the dull ache in his stomach that threatened to turn into the abdominal cramps he'd felt earlier when the virus...

No, not a virus... His thoughts were still fuzzy, but he wondered if his difficulty concentrating was a result of sleep or something more. He didn't feel right. His arms and legs seemed heavy, and he'd almost swear that someone had stuffed cotton in his ears and throat.

What happened? He tried to remember... Clayton Falls. The Army guys. The plague... But it hadn't been really a plague. He tried to push the fog from his brain and managed marginal success, remembering about the water and the train hijacking.

Then what? He remembered following Simon to the car... intending to go back to Cascade. He couldn't remember the actual trip, but he did remember arriving at the loft and... and...

Oh man. His memory returned suddenly. I did it. I actually did it. I can't believe I moved all my stuff in one day. And what's that beeping? Did they turn on the electricity? I don't remember even plugging anything in.

He shifted and attempted to roll on his side beneath the covers. He thought vaguely about opening his eyes when he realized the bed beneath him didn't feel anything like the futon.

"Sandburg? You awake?"

He stopped breathing. Where was he? His new apartment or the loft? Had he really moved, or had it all been a dream?

"Blair?" A light touch on his arm. "You do a great impression of a possum, buddy, but how about you open your eyes now?"

Easier said than done. His eyelids, like his arms and legs, felt much too heavy. Still, he focused on getting them to move, and slowly, the darkness faded to whiteness.

Jim's face slid into view, a small smile on his lips. "Knew you could do it."

Confusion wrinkled Blair's forehead as his gaze wandered around the room. A hospital? What happened? He tried to swallow again, but his mouth was too dry. Still, he tried to speak, but his throat and cheeks felt like sandpaper, and his tongue felt as though it were coated with glue.

Jim seemed to read his mind. "You're in the hospital because you got sick, but you're going to be okay."

Sick? Blair's heart sped up, and the beeping of the heartmonitor jumped. But it wasn't real? I was getting better. They said recovery would kick in...

Jim's face flickered with concern and instant realization. "You're going to be okay," he repeated more slowly. "The Clayton Falls thing wasn't a lethal virus, but  they did taint the water with a bacteria that causes food poisoning symptoms. You would've gotten over it just fine, but it seems you caught the flu on top of it. The combination hit you pretty hard."

Blair released a breath of relief and allowed his eyelids to drift closed again. At least he wasn't dying.

"Sandburg, we need to talk. I'll let you sleep now, but I need to talk to you about your new apartment."

Blair's eyes sprang back open, and he fixed his gaze on Jim. Damn, so it wasn't a dream... and he found out. Wonder how that must have hit him...

"It's okay." Jim's face softened. "I just want you to know you don't have to move out. I didn't mean that at all. I just... " He hesitated for a moment, then his face set with resolve. "Never mind. It can wait. You just get some sleep right now. We'll talk more later."

Blair shook his head, mouthing one word. 'Water.'

"Okay, Chief." He gave Blair's arm a gentle squeeze. "Be right back."

Jim disappeared from view, but returned a few minutes later with a plastic cup and straw. "Here you go, though I'm afraid it's only tap water."

As soon as he felt the straw on his lips, Blair took a sip, wondering distantly at the irony. It was water that had gotten him sick in the first place. Not like he could avoid water. It was one of those pesky things his body needed to keep living -- especially now. He drained the cup in record time. It didn't even come close to quenching his thirst, but it did wet his mouth and throat.

"Thanks." He swallowed hard, eyeing the empty plastic cup as though he could make more water magically appear. "About the move..." He tore his eyes away from the cup and forced them to meet Jim's, but he couldn't quite identify the emotion he found there. "Sorry I didn't get the chance to tell you first, but I did mention the apartment..." He stopped, swallowing again. His mouth was quickly running out of saliva. "I had to jump on it to get it. You know how fast good places go..."

Jim sighed and sank into the chair next to the bed, setting the cup on the end table. "Do you want to move out?"

Blair hesitated, not quite sure how to answer that question. Saying 'yes' would be a lie, but saying 'no' could be putting Jim in an awkward position. "I, uh... I don't mind. It's right downstairs, and I've been living on my own..."

"I don't want you to move out, Chief," Jim interrupted, leaning forward. "I just needed some downtime, that's all. If I wanted you out, I'd have told you."

"It's okay. You need your space. I understand." His eyelids were growing heavy again. "No big deal, really." He managed a tiny smile. "Means I don't have to deal with your really anal houserules."

"Uh, Sandburg..." Jim glanced away, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "About your new place..."

Finally, Blair gave up the battle with his eyelids and let them fall. "Yeah?"

"Give me an honest answer. Do you want to move out? If I hadn't said anything back in Clayton Falls, would you have considered moving out?"

Blair was too tired to play mind games with Jim, so, as he drifted toward sleep, he let the truth come forward. "No."

"I'm glad to hear that, Chief because, uh, I moved all your stuff back into the loft."

It took Blair's fatigue-heavy brain a moment to process that statement. "What?" He opened his eyes again.

Jim offered a shy-looking smile. "I put everything back in the loft, just where you had it."

"You... You gave up my apartment?"

"No," Jim said quickly. "The management company doesn't know anything yet. If you want it, it's still yours, and I'll move everything back. So, uh, what do you say? You want the loft, or you want the new place? I mean, I can see why you'd want your own apartment, but I just don't want you moving because of what I said. Do you understand what I'm trying to say here, Chief?"

Blair took a few more moments to process the new information. He realized he should probably be mad that Jim had taken it upon himself to move everything back to the loft, but he was too tired to be mad. Actually, he was more relieved than anything else. Now he didn't have to worry about scrimping financially.

"Yeah, Jim, I understand." His eyelids drooped, but he managed to keep them open. "And thanks. I'd like to go back to the loft..." He realized it was dark, so his eyelids must have won the battle. "Sorry... Tired."

He felt the warm touch of Jim's palm on his chest. "It's okay, Blair. Go to sleep. I'll stay here a bit longer."

A tiny smile broke through the tug of sleep. "Thanks, Jim."

~~~~  The End  ~~~~