“Well, I’m glad you decided to grace us with your presence,” Joseph said. He didn’t bother to look up from where he was leaned against his desk, flicking through a sheaf of reports.
Sebastian only grunted in reply, snapping Joseph to attention. Their little morning sarcasm repartee was a routine, a routine that Sebastian had just broken.
He looked unusually pale to Joseph, and maybe more tired than usual. It was tough to judge; most people would say the dark circles under his eyes were permanent fixtures now. It set Joseph’s teeth on edge; this was a familiar look on Sebastian, something he had seen again and again in more unpleasant times.
“What’s wrong with you?” Joseph said. He couldn’t keep suspicion from leaking out with the words.
Sebastian might not have been sober exactly, but he’d managed to break the crippling cycle of alcohol dependency. At least, as far as Joseph knew. The idea that Sebastian might have been back to drinking himself into oblivion made Joseph’s chest wrench painfully. After all, one more IA investigation was guaranteed to get the man fired, and that’s what it had taken before.
Sebastian must have picked up on Joseph’s silent insinuation; he sneered.
“I’m just tired.”
Joseph tried to keep his face from betraying his reservations by nodding and going back to his reading. Sebastian fell heavily into his chair and gave their case-load a cursory glance.
“We’re only checking up on one lead today?”
“Yeah,” Joseph sighed, “then, paperwork for the rest of the day. We kind of let it get backed up there for a bit.”
Joseph was grateful that their lead lived a reasonably close distance from the station. Sebastian’s behavior was making him edgy and making it hard to hide his mounting sense of alarm. He just wanted to get back to the office where he could keep an eye on him.
Sebastian had shut his mouth for once during the questioning. It should have pissed Joseph off, since he hardly needed the extra work, but it was too strange to bother him. When they’d first started working together, Sebastian had accused Joseph of being a “soft touch” with the questions. He’d insisted on leading interrogations in his bullish way ever since.
Now, he just stood against the wall and rubbed his temples, only interrupting Joseph once or twice. On the walk back to the car, Joseph finally spoke up.
“Are you okay?”
Sebastian frowned. “I’m fine. Just tired, like I said.” He gritted his teeth and let out a sharp exhale. “Do you uh, do you mind driving?”
“No, that’s fine,” Joseph said. He stared hard at Sebastian. A light sheen of sweat gathered on his brow and his eyes looked distant.
Joseph opted to say nothing, just took the keys from Sebastian.
When Sebastian skipped lunch, Joseph’s concern mounted into full-on worry. Sebastian may have had the self-care ability of a baby duck, but eating was one of the few things Joseph never found himself fussing over with him. The only time he’d seen Sebastian refuse food was, well…when he’d been drinking.
Joseph gave Sebastian a stern look and passed him half of his sandwich. “Eat something.”
“Yes, mother,” Sebastian said, rolling his eyes.
He put the sandwich-half down next to him and kept writing. By Joseph’s estimation, he’d been working on that form for something like 40 minutes.
“Seriously,” Joseph said.
Sebastian sighed and dropped his pen with a dramatic thud. He took a dutiful bite of the sandwich, staring hard at Joseph the whole time.
Joseph ignored him and went back to fill out his supply request; they needed a new med-kit. He glanced up from behind his paper and noticed that the sandwich had been forgotten in its place by Sebastian’s paper again.
He pretended not to notice Sebastian bury his head in his arms and take deep, measured breaths, and pretended to not feel a dreadful sense of nostalgia at the scene.
“Ugh, god,” Joseph hissed.
He held his hand motionless over the ruined paper, ink dripping from his fingers. Fine time for his pen to break. He’d blotted what he could with a paper towel and tossed the pen in the garbage before he noticed that Sebastian was missing. That wasn’t necessarily unusual- he had a tendency to get so wrapped up in the monotony of paperwork that he completely missed his partner’s comings and goings. Hell, maybe Sebastian had finally gotten hungry enough to skip out and get something to eat.
Then again, the lonely sandwich on his desk suggested that this was wishful thinking.
Joseph held his hand out in front of himself and maneuvered his way to the bathroom, careful not to track ink on anything. He’d managed to get to the sink and rinse it off before he was interrupted by the sound of retching coming from a nearby stall.
“Excuse me? You okay in there-“
The door to the stall was open slightly, just enough to see the figure doubled over the toilet. Joseph pushed the door open.
Sebastian glanced behind him before a shudder tore through him and he vomited noisily into the bowl again. Joseph darted forward and brushed Sebastian’s unkempt hair back from his face and pressed the heel of his free palm to his shoulder-blades. It had been a while, but the gesture was familiar and came automatically to him. At the very worst of it, Sebastian had been drinking himself sick almost every other day, and despite his simmering anger Joseph had always been there to keep him from choking to death or seizing with dehydration.
Sebastian managed to roll his eyes, drooling as he shook from the dry-heaving convulsions. He looked more pallid that before, and his face was flushed and damp with sweat. He made a choked sound and threw up again, shaking so hard that he missed the toilet by a wide margin and got it all over the floor.
“Eugh,” Joseph said, “think you’re finished?”
Sebastian heaved his breath in gasps and nodded. He staggered out of the bathroom stall and leaned against the small sink, arms shaking with the weight of holding himself upright. Joseph patted him on the back and fetched a handful of paper towels to carefully wipe Sebastian’s face, cleaning off the worst of the mess. Sebastian grunted and snatched the towels away, turning and splashing his face in the faucet.
Joseph watched and bit his lip, dreading what he was about to do. When Sebastian’s heavy breathing had evened out somewhat, he squared his shoulders and tried to swallow down his tempestuous anxiety.
Sebastian glared over his shoulder.
“Were you…is this…”
“Spit it out, Joseph.”
“Have you been drinking again?”
Joseph’s voice had come more quiet and uncertain than he would have liked; he’d been going for stern. Sebastian looked genuinely infuriated for a moment and Joseph flinched. He really should have braced himself for the worst, after all.
Sebastian’s expression melted into something tired and sad.
“No, Joseph. I promise. I’m just…a little nauseous.”
Joseph glanced to the royal mess he’d made of the bathroom stall and chuckled nervously.
It worked; Sebastian smiled.
“Let’s get back to the office,” Sebastian said, straightening up and running a shaking hand through his damp hair.
Joseph nodded and walked back, Sebastian trailing him slowly. Joseph closed the office door behind them and flitted over to rummage through his desk. He grabbed a small digital thermometer that he kept in his personal first-aid kit and brought it over to where Sebastian had slumped at his desk.
“Open up,” Joseph said.
He hovered and waved the thermometer at his partner. Sebastian opened one bloodshot eye and scowled.
“Seriously? Why do you even have that?”
“Well, if you’re definitely not hung-over or drunk, then you’re sick,” Joseph said with an air of finality, “and maybe you forget, but personal care is a facet of our responsibility as civil servants.”
Sebastian sighed theatrically and took the thermometer from Joseph, sticking it under his tongue. They both stared at it in a tense, awkward silence as they waited for the instrument to beep.
Joseph snatched the thermometer from Sebastian’s mouth and took in a sharp breath.
“I’m calling Chief and sending you home,” Joseph said, running a hand through his hair, “why didn’t you say something? You must be seriously ill.”
“I’m fine,” Sebastian growled.
Joseph gave him a pinched, irritated glare. “You’ve got a 103 degree fever, you idiot. Two more degrees and you’re going to have a damned seizure. Go. Home. Seriously.”
Sebastian lurched up and grabbed his trench coat from the back of his chair. “Fine, fine. Whatever, I’ll go. Less paperwork for me, I guess.”
Joseph watched him wobble as he shrugged the coat on and felt another spike of panic.
“God, no, wait,” Joseph said, grabbing Sebastian’s shoulder. Sebastian stood and swayed in the doorway with a quizzical expression.
Joseph glared to try and keep from looking like a worried mother. “You can’t be driving like that. You’ll pass out at the wheel and kill someone. I’m driving you home.”
“Joseph, I’m an adult. I can drive myself home. It’s bad enough that you’re sending me marching home like a pissed-off Canadian nanny.”
“Yes, an adult who can’t even hold his keys steady,” Joseph said, gesturing angrily to where Sebastian’s keys jangled in his shaking hand, “I’m not going to have it on my conscience if you drive into oncoming traffic and kill yourself.”
They stared each other down. Sebastian lost the impromptu contest when he shuddered and pressed a hand to his mouth.
“Fine,” Sebastian said through his gritted teeth, “you win. Drive.”
Joseph flashed Sebastian a relieved smile and grabbed his own car keys from the desk.
“You better not puke in my car, Seb.”
When Joseph came back from telling the Chief of their departure, he found Sebastian dutifully filling out one of the forms on his desk. The writing slanted sharply off of any appropriate line, sprawled across the page and trailed off onto the desk’s blotter.
“Some of your finest work,” Joseph said, plucked the pen from Sebastian’s hand.
Sebastian jolted and gripped the side of the desk.
“Going home, remember?” Joseph’s brow furrowed.
Sebastian was breathing heavy, face contorted painfully by the time they got to his apartment. Joseph pulled Sebastian against him while they walked to the building, letting him wrap his arm around Joseph’s waist so he wouldn’t lose balance. Sebastian pulled free when they got inside and dropped onto the couch, slumping over the arm.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital, Sebastian.”
Sebastian looked up at Joseph as though he were having trouble focusing.
“I’m worried. Maybe you should go to the hospital, you don’t-“
Sebastian shivered, sweat traveling down his neck.
“You really don’t look so good.”
“Not going to any hospital,” Sebastian growled.
Joseph had been expecting that- for whatever reason, Sebastian had completely sworn off doctors and hospitals after the accident. Bad memories, maybe. Still, that didn’t change the current situation.
“If you’re fever gets any higher-“
“I’m not going!” Sebastian snapped, “You want me to go, I better be fuckin’ dying, or at least most of the way there, ‘cause otherwise I’ll kick your ass.”
Joseph sighed and let his arms fall heavily to his sides. “Your funeral, but I still want to check your temperature.”
“Well, you might want to, but I don’t have a thermometer. Haven’t needed one…”
The silence hung heavy around the unspoken remainder of the sentence. Haven’t needed one since Lily died.
Joseph cleared his throat. “Well, lucky for me I brought this one.”
He pulled the thermometer from his pocket.
“Now put this in your mouth.”
“Very forward of you,” Sebastian said.
His words were starting to slur and it seemed as though his head and limbs were a burden to him. Joseph rolled his eyes and stuck the thermometer between Sebastian’s lips.
When the instrument beeped, Joseph grabbed it from Sebastian’s mouth.
“Fuck,” Joseph breathed. The readout blared “103.8” in the dim lighting.
“Oh no, am I gonna make it doc?” Sebastian said with a laugh, his voice quiet and unsteady.
“Get up,” Joseph said tersely, pulling at Sebastian’s arm.
Sebastian stood and swayed drunkenly. He looked like he could barely keep his eyes open. Joseph wrapped his arm around his shoulder and guided him to the bathroom, cold worry stabbing spikes through his chest.
“Just seeing if you’re still with me.”
He sat Sebastian down on the floor, propped up against a wall; he didn’t trust him to hold himself upright. Joseph went and stopped the tub, running the water on the cool side of lukewarm.
“I’ll be right back,” Joseph said.
Sebastian nodded limply.
He sprinted into Sebastian’s kitchen. Normally, he would have been seriously bothered by how messy and disorganized it was, but now the chaos barely registered. He went straight to the cabinet he knew Sebastian kept a bare-minimum of pills in and grabbed the large bottle of ibuprofen- something he used to keep around for hangovers.
When he returned to the bathroom, Sebastian had slipped down and was drowsing with his head bent against the wall at an awkward angle. Joseph slipped off his gloves and placed a hand to his forehead, frowning at the unnatural heat of his skin. With a few deft movements (and no small amount of embarrassment) Joseph un-clipped Sebastian’s holster, slipped his vest off, and removed his shoes and belt. The rest of Sebastian’s clothing would just have to be collateral damage.
“Okay, c’mon Sebastian,” Joseph said, lifting him by the underarms, “this will be…unpleasant.”
“What’re you doin’?” Sebastian mumbled. He tried to get his feet underneath himself, but failed. Joseph hoisted him up.
“Need to get your temperature down, fast,” Joseph said.
Sebastian hadn’t seemed to hear him; he seemed to be half-asleep, eyes closed and head hanging as Joseph supported him.
With a tremendous amount of strain, Joseph lifted and deposited Sebastian in the bathtub, sloshing water over the edge and onto the floor. It was less gentle than Joseph would have liked, and he kept his arm around Sebastian’s head to rest it gently against the porcelain before turning the tap off.
“Jesus!” Sebastian sputtered, trying weakly to sit up, “t-that’s fuckin’…that’s fuckin’ cold.”
“It’s not that cold, and besides, that’s the point. You need to cool down.”
Sebastian gave a grunt that Joseph took as a form of protest. He was at least grateful that the man was too lethargic to try and get out. He went to the sink and filled a paper cup with water, palming a few of the painkillers.
“Here,” Joseph said, holding the pills out.
When Sebastian didn’t take them, he shook him by the shoulder.
Sebastian opened one eye.
“Okay, open your mouth.”
“Jeez, Joseph. I think I like it when you get all demanding like th-“
Joseph pressed the pills into his mouth mid-sentence. He braced Sebastian by the neck and tilted some water into his mouth, taking care to make sure he didn’t choke. Sebastian shivered and wrapped his arms around his torso, letting his eyes slip closed again.
Joseph dropped to the floor, sitting with his back to the tub. Sebastian had ceased to complain, but that only made Joseph worry more. The whole thing felt incredibly irresponsible; Sebastian really should have
been in the hospital, or at least a doctor. Still, going against Sebastian’s wishes felt like a betrayal-and hadn’t Joseph betrayed the man enough for one lifetime?
Besides, Joseph thought, 103 wasn’t that high for an adult. He decided as long as it was lower in the next hour or so, everything would be fine.
Joseph cleaned up the bathroom in an attempt to keep his mind clear. By the time he’d gathered up and deposited a pile of clean towels and sweatpants on Sebastian’s bed, he figured it had been enough time. Honestly, it was getting hard to watch Sebastian shivering and miserable in the cold bathwater. He shook Sebastian gently.
“Hey, c’mon. Time to get out.”
Sebastian blinked, staring blearily at Joseph as though he’d forgotten his partner was there. Joseph offered him the cup of water, which Sebastian managed to take in his own hand this time.
“Up and out, soldier,” Joseph said and tugged Sebastian under the arms. Sebastian lurched upward and slipped, coming frightfully close to cracking his head against the tile walls. Joseph had expected it and caught him. He braced Sebastian while he struggled out of the tub, body made heavy by soaked clothing and illness. Sebastian pushed away from Joseph and dropped to his knees on the floor, clutching at his stomach like something might tear through it. He vomited onto the floor, shuddering and gasping with the combined strain of cold and nausea.
“Well,” Joseph said, “there goes the medicine.”
He waited and rested a hand on Sebastian’s cold, soaked back until the dry-heaving let up. He wrapped a towel around his trembling shoulders and wiped his mouth before pulling him up.
“Think you can make it to the bedroom?”
Sebastian blinked like a dazed man and nodded once in slow motion. Joseph’s face was tight with concern as he led him to the bedroom.
“Okay, uh,” Joseph said, glancing around the room nervously, “do you…think you can get changed on your own? I’m going to get some more pills.”
Sebastian nodded a little more quickly. Joseph pressed the towels and clothes into his arms and left to get the pills.
He came back with a wet hand-towel draped over his arm, a glass of water, and the ibuprofen. He figured he’d need the whole bottle if Sebastian’s body intended to throw up ever dose of anti-inflammatory he gave him. Sebastian lay curled up on his side. He’d managed to divest himself of the wet clothes, but had only managed to put on a pair of pants, the rest of skin bare and shimmering with dampness in the dim light.
“Hey, I need you to try and take some pills one more time,” Joseph said softly.
He offered Sebastian his arm to pull himself up and lean against the headboard. Joseph tipped the pills into Sebastian’s mouth again, ignoring his outstretched hand, and helped him to drink some more water. Sebastian sagged against the pillows.
“And open up,” Joseph said, brandishing the thermometer.
Sebastian didn’t even put up a token resistance. It felt like a thundering eternity before it went off again, but Joseph felt as though an enormous weight had lifted from his chest when he saw the readout.
He eyed Sebastian warily. “As long as you don’t throw up again, anyway. Think you will?”
Sebastian smiled lazily at Joseph, not seeming as though he understood the question. Joseph would just have to deal with that possibility when it came. He pulled a light sheet over Sebastian and draped the wet hand-cloth over his forehead.
“Get some rest.”
Sebastian didn’t respond but Joseph hadn’t exactly been expecting him to. He was gratified to see that the fever had gone down but Sebastian’s sluggishness and lack of responsiveness still made his skin prickle with worry. Joseph slipped off his shoes and holster so that he could climb into bed and sit beside Sebastian. Maybe it was a little over-protective, but he wanted to make sure that Sebastian didn’t go into convulsions, or choke on vomit.
Sebastian stirred beside him, head flopping heavily to the side.
“Joseph?” he said quietly. He looked exhausted and flushed.
“Yeah,” Joseph said, smiling tiredly at him, “figured I’d stay here for the night.”
Sebastian closed his eyes again. After a few moments, he felt Sebastian move and lay one hand weakly on Joseph’s thigh. After a bit of squirming, Sebastian had worked his way over to lay his head on Joseph’s lap, one arm wrapped loosely around his waist.
“S’comfortable,” Sebastian muttered against Joseph’s leg.
Something tugged in Joseph’s chest and he gave Sebastian’s drowsing form a lopsided smile.
“Well, okay then. Goodnight, Seb.”
It didn’t take long before Sebastian was snoring lightly, tucked in Joseph’s lap. He leaned against the headboard, taking the idle time to consider their active cases, made a mental list of supplies to fill out requisition forms for, and tried to come up with a rough idea of just how much of Sebastian’s paperwork he’d have to catch up on. Eventually he let himself lapse into aimless, quiet meditation.
Sebastian twitched and mumbled in his sleep. Without thinking, Joseph ran his fingers through Sebastian’s slightly-damp hair. Joseph grinned to himself in the darkness; Sebastian was like a great, disgruntled dog curled up in his lap. He yawned, carding through Sebastian’s hair, and steeled himself to stay awake as long as he could.
When Sebastian awoke, all he was aware of was how sore his chest and stomach felt and the dull ache in his skull. Everything on him felt like death warmed over, honestly, but at the very least he wasn’t feeling feverish and on the verge of vomiting anymore. The sunlight that peeked through the window blinds stung at his eyes and he shifted to bury his face against the strangely warm, bony pillow against his head.
That’s someone’s leg, Sebastian corrected himself. It took a minute for that reality to sink in, and he shifted so that he could look up and remember who he had fallen asleep on.
Joseph’s sleeping form loomed above him with Sebastian’s head comfortably folded between his crossed legs. He was still fully dressed in rumpled work clothes; glasses crooked and perched on the very tip of his nose. His limp hand was threaded through Sebastian’s hair as though he’d nodded off in the middle of petting Sebastian.
This time, the heat in his face had nothing to do with fever.
Sebastian had two options: see if he could break away and maintain what was left of his dignity without waking Joseph, or suck it up and just stay put. It didn’t take long before he decided to let his abject physical misery make the decision for him. He was really very tired and still feeling pretty out of it- and the feeling of being snuggled up close to Joseph suffused Sebastian with a strange, tingling warm sensation. It would be a shame to move and lose that warm feeling.
It occurred to Sebastian as he relaxed against him that Joseph must have been sitting there, keeping watch over him for most of the night. The thought made him feel simultaneously weak with embarrassment and gave him a strange, affectionate fluttering in his chest; something he hadn’t felt in a long time. Of course, Joseph going out of his way to take care of Sebastian wasn’t anything new, but the intimacy of the moment felt…different to Sebastian. More delicate.
It was a feeling that threatened to break through the thick wall of Sebastian’s reservations and staunch self-denial.
You’re taking this too seriously, Sebastian thought. He nuzzled against Joseph and squeezed a little where his arm was hooked around Joseph’s waist. Sebastian hummed quietly to himself, content that he could at least have this, at least this once, before he closed his eyes to the invading sunlight.