Imperfections VI: What Comes Around
See notes and disclaimer in part one.
The loft was homey and comforting and almost perfect. A lamp was still missing. It had broken in the robbery. The books from the bookshelf still had to be resorted. Blair found himself wanting to laugh. Fat lot of good it had done them, breaking in and stealing the evidence. Jim had found them anyway. Note to self: do not mess with sentinels.
"What's so funny?" Jim asked, hanging up his jacket.
"Nothing. Nothing, it's just--It's been a long day."
Jim looked at him for a moment. "Yeah. I guess it has. You're pretty wired. You should go drink some tea or something."
Jim telling him to go drink tea really *was* funny, but Jim didn't look the least amused, so Blair pressed his mouth into his hand and swallowed the slightly hysterical laughter down. Jim was right. Blair was wired.
Not sure what else to do, he put on water for the tea and checked the answering machine. Three of the little tapes had come with the thing. They were now down to two. If people were going to keep breaking in and stealing them, they should buy some more.
Blair managed not to laugh at that.
The first message was from Naomi, asking how the vacation went. The second message was from Marcia. Jack was out of ICU, conscious, and labeled "stable."
Blair felt slightly giddy, looking at the machine. He was relieved, but surreal. If surreal was an emotion you could have.... "That's...really good," he whispered. "You know, I think they expel you if you get your advisor killed."
"It wasn't your fault, Chief," Jim said dully. "We should do something for dinner."
Something in his voice brought Blair up short. "Jim? Are you ok? I mean, this was one hell of a day...."
"I'm fine, Sandburg," but the denial was quiet and almost uninterested.
"Are you sure? Because this was some pretty heavy personal shit--"
Jim met his gaze flatly. "I'm not freaking out. I'm dealing with it."
"Ok, that's...that's good."
"There's some frozen soup. How's that for dinner? No bread, but we have some croissants in a tube--"
Slowly, Blair approached Jim. Something was *way* wrong. "Jim? What are you dealing with?"
"We going to play twenty questions here?" But he didn't sound annoyed, just resigned.
Blair tried to smile. "I don't know. How many have I used up already?" Unsure quite what approach to use, he decided to start with guilt. "Come in, give me a break. My job is hard enough. Tell me what's going on."
"This isn't about the senses, Chief. I'm fine. Really. I'm not going to freak out and put myself in a hospital."
When Blair was about five feet away, Jim took a step back. That showed one heck of a big personal space, but Blair stopped moving. "Yeah. Ok. It's not the senses. What is it?"
"Look I just...I have to face that it's all my fault. Okay? But I don't need any crap from you about it--"
"Jim? What was your fault?"
Jim turned away and began to rummage through the freezer for the soup. Blair took a step forward, but stopped when Jim shuddered. Crap.
The phone rang. Blair picked it up: the DEA. He told them Jim was in the shower. They told him that Jim had an appointment at the federal building at eight the next morning.
"Thanks," Jim said, and put the tupperware box of frozen soup into the microwave.
They watched the numbers count backwards for two and a half minutes. Then Jim turned the soup and started it again. Blair gave up and turned on the oven. When he started to lay the pre-made croissants on a baking sheet, though, Jim came and nudged him out of the way. "You're rolling from the wrong corner," he said. "They'll be lopsided."
"Jim that's...really picky."
"Almost worthy of Adrian, I know." Jim tried to smile, failed. "I knew Oliver was dirty. For months. But I didn't have any evidence and I followed the rules and I was too stupid to even think.... Afterward, when I knew it had been him, when I knew what he'd done...I shot my mouth off, but that didn't accomplish anything. He was so good at covering his tracks. But I knew. I should have just shot him. It would have saved all those people his drug running killed. And Holland. And Kelso."
Blair reached around Jim and turned off the oven. "Dinner can wait. Get your coat, let's go."
Jim looked puzzled. "Where? You know, this bossy guide thing, it doesn't suit you."
"Jack is going to be fine. You need to see that. Let's go." A lie. Blair was in way over his head. He needed Jack's help.
"That doesn't change--"
"You're not hungry. We might as well do this as pretend to eat. Let's go."
Jack was in a private room, still under guard. The uniformed cops took their ID's and then called in to their supervisor before letting them in. Apparently, the guy who had made it past Joel that afternoon had had really convincing ID that said he was FBI.
Jack was awake and sitting up. He was still pale, but his color had improved from "frightening" to "live human," which was good. He also looked a lot older, but that might just be because he had his glasses off.
Blair paused in the door way and Jim eased behind him. Almost as though he were afraid. Or ashamed. Damn. "Uh, hi? Jack? How are you feeling?"
A wan smile. "Wonderful. I hear you boys got Oliver."
"Um. Um, yeah. Jim found him. It turns out he was trying to kill an undercover DEA agent before the agent could come in and finger him. A lot of stuff seems to be coming out."
"So, where is Marcia?"
"Sent her home to pack. No chance she's staying there after today."
Jim hadn't said anything during this exchange, but he had slowly eased his way out from behind Blair. Now he moved over to the bed and sat in the chair Marcia must have vacated. He laid one hand on Jack's stomach. It was a position Blair had seen diagrams of. It was the most common diagnostic position used by sentinel doctors. It had to be intuitive. This wasn't something he'd been taught. "Jim," he said gently. "You need to ask first."
Jim glanced up at him. "What?"
Jack flipped his free hand slightly, motioning Blair to be silent. "How am I doing?"
Jim's jaw ground silently for a moment. "You're working very hard."
"I'm so sorry," Jim whispered.
"It wouldn't have made a difference if you'd been there. Campus was crowded. Classes were changing. The air was very cold, it wouldn't carry smell very well--"
"That isn't what he means," Blair said miserably. "He thinks--"
Jack motioned him to be quiet again. "Pretty heavy, huh, Jim? You thought you were done with this."
"I'm sorry. Oliver...."
"Oliver," Jack said very softly, "is a real piece of work."
"He is a rabid dog. He should have been put down."
"What happened to you was my fault."
Blair opened his mouth to argue, caught himself, and subsided, leaning against the door frame.
"I knew what Oliver was, and I...didn't stop him. I think that's why Blair brought me here. He's afraid I can't live with it. Knowing what Oliver did because I didn't stop him."
"Jim...I should probably explain something." Jack paused, breathing. When he spoke again, though, his voice was louder and stronger. "I would *rather* be dead than live in a country where people are 'stopped' because of suspicion."
"Yes. You are. I believe in the courts. The laws restrain everyone. Or you might as well not have them."
"Fuck," Jim whispered. He tried to pull away. Jack caught his hand.
"This is a trade I am willing to make. You are going to have to live with that."
Jim closed his eyes. Jack waited.
"He killed them. He sent us into a trap."
"I know." Something seemed to pass between them, an acknowledgement of something dark and terrible. Whatever it was, Blair couldn't quiet get his mind around it.
Footsteps in the hall. Marcia brushed past Blair. She was carrying an overnight bag. "You shouldn't be here," she said. "He's tired."
Jack glanced at her briefly. "Not now," he murmured. Marcia cast Jim a last dirty look but gave in.
"I don't understand," Jim said. "How did you learn to be soft?"
"I didn't have a choice. My hardness was killing the people who...depended on me." His voice had grown so quiet that Blair could hardly hear and his free hand moved restlessly, fumbling at the bed control.
Anxious, Blair asked, "Jack? Are you in trouble?" Surely, he had to be ok. He looked like hell, but neither sentinel was panicking. He had to be ok.
"Just want to sit up a little more." And Marcia was suddenly beside him, across the bed from Jim. She adjusted the bed and offered some water. Blair had never imagined her gentle.
"I did a lot of damage...."
"Stop it," Marcia said.
"I'll be making up for it the rest of my life. Giving you to Blair...From the beginning, he'll be the guide I should have been."
"Hush," Marcia said.
"No," Jack said. "There's so much he has to learn, if he's going to survive. He's got to learn to let the pain pass through him. He's got to learn to be vulnerable. He's...got to hope. Or he'll die. It's so hard to hope. It took me so long, and you're just now beginning to learn it. I can't do it for him, Marcia. I couldn't do it for you...."
"Enough," Marcia whispered. "For today, it's enough. Tomorrow, I promise, I'll let you save the whole world."
This time, when Blair approached Jim, he didn't pull away. He let Blair hug him gently, then coax him into standing. "Call us," Blair said to Marcia. "If you need anything."
"Oh, yes," she answered. "You owe him."
In the hall, Blair turned to Jim and whispered, "He wasn't coherent."
"Coherent enough." And then, "The pain medicine was cycling through. *Not* like over the counter stuff. I can see why he doesn't want Marcia there. He's sweating out all kinds of toxic garbage. I can also see why she won't leave, though."
Toxic? Lovely. He would have to be sure his own sentinel got cleaned up. "Are you ok?"
Jim shrugged. "Eventually. Jack's right. It is better this way. It just...."
"Yeah. He was right about that, too."
Mercifully, Sandburg didn't make him talk on the way home. To forestall any talking after they arrived, Jim fled to the bathroom as soon as he got in the door. It only bought him about half a minute.
"Jim? I'm really sorry, man--"
"I'm fine. Leave me alone."
"Jim, I know you don't want to hear this now--"
That was right. He didn't.
"--but you really need to shower."
Whatever he'd been expecting, that wasn't it. He cracked the door and snapped, "What?"
"You need to wash off whatever you were exposed to at the hospital. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. We have to deal with this--"
"This? Who cares about this?" He had just a moment of fleeting anxiety and regret, and then he was standing in the hall bellowing at Blair. "Who cares about this!"
"*Jack was right*, do you understand? Jack was right. I couldn't have done anything else. And that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that he was right, because they're all dead!"
He started to push past his astonished guide, to flee, but then he changed his mind. "Do you remember the Switchman case, Chief?"
"Um, yeah. That was...one of yours, wasn't it?"
"Oh, yeah. It was one of mine. One of mine. A nut case ran around Cascade and Seattle for three months blowing buildings up because she was personally angry at me."
"I don't...what?" Blair was looking at him in bewilderment.
"Her father was one of my men. One of the ones who died. And she blamed me. And look, she was right--"
"Jim, the Switchman was crazy. Even I got that much, and I don't watch the news--"
Jim threw his hands up. "Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Only once if it's military, but hey. Veronica Sarris nailed this one. I followed the rules. I did my job. I *couldn't* have done anything else. And it was still my fault."
Blair was already shaking his head before Jim finished. "No. Some people made choices to do evil things. None of that was your fault. It hurts, and it feels like guilt or blame, but your responsibility--"
"I followed the rules!" Jim screamed. The words hurt, and left a gash of pain inside him.
"Oh, god," Jim smelled tears, not his own, Blair's, and the surprise of that made everything slightly surreal. Why would Blair be crying? "They told you if you followed the rules everything would be fine...but they lied. I'm sorry."
Oh. God. Yes. They'd lied.
Why was that a surprise? He'd known his father hadn't told him the truth about a lot of things. He'd known that his drill instructor had said...so many things they all knew weren't true. He'd known for years that Oliver was lying to the army and to the government, and that Sam was lying to himself....
"Jim, I'm sorry. I thought you knew."
Surely, on some level, he'd known. This shouldn't be a surprise. It felt, though, like he'd been hit in the head with an axe. He must have looked pretty bad, too, because Blair took his arms and sat him in the floor. "Too late," Jim muttered, and vomited onto the floor between his knees.
He hadn't eaten all day. All that came up was a thin, yellow mucus that burned on the way out. He would have gotten back up and headed for the bathroom again, but Blair kept him still, muttering, "I've got it, I've got it. Don't move."
He was back in a moment with damp paper towels and a cup of cool water. "Little sips, Jim. Try to calm down. You're all right."
Jim never could remember much of that evening later. There was a shower involved. At one point he looked down to discover half a cup of broth and part of a croissant, neither of which he recognized as having eaten. If they talked, Jim was never sure what was said.
He woke up the next morning still on the couch with his head in Blair's lap. It would have been embarrassing, but after the hysteria and the vomiting and who knew what else, this hardly even seemed worth mentioning.
Blair, at least, was kind enough not to mention it. He did barely let Jim out of his sight all day, but since that meant he sat in on all of Jim's debriefings (which, in turn confounded the feds), he figured it was a fair trade. All in all, three different government agencies called Jim in for a chat, and each of them was disconcerted when two people sat down instead of one. "He is a police officer on duty. You cannot require him to work without a guide. The Occupational Health and Safety laws are very definite."
"Well, yes, Mr. Sandberg. But a guide is hardly necessary here in the office. Usually...well, it's more efficient to take your report separately."
"It's not customary for a guide to give a report at all. In Cascade, guide is a civilian position."
And however much the suits would hint that Blair would be more comfortable somewhere else, he just smiled and politely said, no, thank you. Jim supposed that if he'd had access to any current information that was classified, they might have lost in the end. As it was, it was probably passive-aggressive to sit back and let Blair--oh, very nicely--insist on things like lunch, but it was all the revenge Jim was going to get--
God, they had been good men. They had *done* their jobs. They'd tried.
He pushed those thoughts out of his mind as they went over (and over, and over) the events of the previous day.
Then never even made it into the station at all. At five, Blair's polite guide persona called it a night. They stopped for Wonderburger and dropped by the hospital. Jack was better, but it would be at least a week before they'd let him go home. As awful a place as a hospital was to be--and as much as Jim sympathized--that was probably the best thing. Jim's medical training had been mostly for combat situations, and none of it had taken the sentinel perceptions into account, but while he couldn't name the complications that might be lurking, he could feel in his gut that things were precarious still.
They didn't stay long. Jack still tired pretty easily, and besides, Marcia made it clear that she found their presence irritating. Jim really hoped he wasn't that unpleasant.
Jim was unusually quiet for the rest of the week. His discharge of firearm had bought them both three days on desk duty. Blair hovered. Stress was a killer for people who had average senses. And really in the scheme of things, Jim hadn't been well for all that long.
But nothing alarming happened. Jim ate. He slept. He developed no rash, no spontaneous swelling in the joints or throat. He didn't freak out again. Maybe things were under control.
Blair didn't push it, though. He kept himself available, but didn't offer to talk. If Jim *wanted* to talk, well...but he didn't feel equipped to deal with this level of trauma.
They were busy, even with the desk duty. Sharona Fleming was on vacation visiting her mother in New Jersey, which meant that Adrian was taking his vacation days and spending them at home. When they weren't filling out reports or talking to IA, Jim and Blair spent most of the rest of the week on loan to forensics.
As a detective, Jim made a really kick-ass sentinel. As a forensic specialist, it turned out he was no Adrian Monk. Serena complained that Jim's approach was sloppy. Caroline said he took too long. And his reports were poorly organized. Jim said the next time they wanted someone to sniff a crime scene that stank like old gym socks, they could sniff it themselves. Blair suggested that Jim try some continuing ed, which was when Jim caught him in a headlock and gave him a wedgy. That was Friday morning. It was the most animation Blair had seen out of his partner since they got back from the retreat. Blair let himself hope it was a good sign.
That night, Jim had plans to go with Adrian to a movie. Sharona had made Adrian promise to leave the house once while she was gone. He was willing to try it "guideless," but not completely alone. Blair wasn't holding out much hope for their evening: Adrian hated movies, and besides, he was afraid of the dark. Jim was determined to go through with it, though, and Blair had to admit that a part of his enthusiasm might have to do with the fact that Jim hadn't been free of his own babysitter in days. So he had his fingers crossed for them.
They'd taken separate cars to work, so when Jim left to pick up Adrian, Blair headed over to the hospital. There was no cop on the door, but Marcia and Joel were both inside with Jack, and Blair paused at the threshold. "Am I interrupting police work?" he asked.
"Oh," Joel said. "No. No. I just stopped by to check on things."
Marcia smiled. "They're letting him out tomorrow," she said.
"Hey, that's great."
"Marcia, why don't you take Captain Taggart down to the cafeteria for some coffee. I need to talk to Blair alone."
"I can do better than that," Joel said. "There's a little pizza place across the street. We could even bring something back."
Marcia said sternly to Jack, "No pizza."
Jack sighed. "I could have salad. Or spaghetti."
"Mmmm. All right."
When they were left alone, Blair said neutrally, "I take it you're getting tired of the food?"
"It's not unusually bad, really. At least she's stopped fussing about my diet." He winked at Blair. That last had clearly been meant for the sentinel who would still be near enough to overhear them. "Where's Jim?"
"Sentinels' night out. He's with the forensics guy. Do you know him?"
"Only by reputation. Poor Jim."
Blair gauged that there was enough hospital between Marcia and this room that they could be considered actually alone. He sat down. "How are you feeling?"
"Not bad. I'm ahead of schedule, actually. I put responsibility for that squarely on Marcia. I'm on my third antibiotic, and she was the one who knew the first two weren't working long before anyone else had a clue."
"Jack, I'm so sorry. I never should have gotten you involved--"
"You didn't ask. And I could have said, no....Blair, as a guide, you have your priorities straight. I can't argue with that, and I won't fault you for it."
"I'm just annoyed at how far this puts me behind in my research. I was hoping to be able to have something really solid to say at this year's AAAG."
"Ah. I bet that's my cue to volunteer with data entry."
"Good boy." Jack squirmed a little. He was holding himself stiffly, and Blair had spent too much time watching for pain in the last half-year or so not to see that things were not quite as good as Jack had said.
"Do you need me to leave?" he asked quietly.
"No." Carefully, trying not to jog the stitches along the side of his neck, he squirmed again. "In my last job, I got hazard pay when people shot at me."
"And you didn't have to do the faculty wine and cheese on Friday nights."
"At least I got out of that. So how's Jim?"
And even though he felt guilty as hell, leaning on Jack for advice after everything else the man had given them, Blair pounced on the question with relief. "He needs to be in therapy! But there's no way in hell. You have no idea how stigmatized--"
"I know exactly how stigmatized."
"--he would be. Right. Well, he won't even talk about it."
"Is he zoning?"
"Not that I know about."
"You know, Blair, you can make me the heavy. If you say I'm requiring it, as part of your evaluation...."
"We can send him to the doctor, but we can't make him talk, Jack. And besides....to *force* him. After Brackett, I can't see--Oh, god, I forgot to tell you. We have a court date for some kind of hearing next week. I managed to put the DA off, but he wants to see us first thing Monday. Crap! I don't know how either one of us is going to cope with this--
Jack closed his eyes. "Ok. First, you have to calm down. Right? And then we'll talk about contingency plans."
Jim really wished he'd agreed to "Balto," even though it was a cartoon. But, no. Jim had lobbied for "Die Hard, With a Vengeance." An action movie, he'd said. Some excitement, he'd said. Explosions without consequences, he'd said.
His right arm was going to sleep. Adrian had grabbed it in both hands and was squeezing. Even through the jacket Jim had on in the chilly theater, he was cutting off the circulation pretty efficiently.
But even the tingling in his fingers was a minor issue compared to the embarrassment of having Adrian's face buried in his shoulder. Really, they should have seen "Balto."
Adrian whimpered something that might have been, "Tell me when it's over," but might have been something else. Whatever it was, it was loud enough to make the people just in front of them glance back. Flushing with embarrassment, Jim wondered how much cover the darkened theater gave them to un-sentinel eyes. Not enough, clearly, because one of the guys in the next row was sniggering.
Sentinels are so weird, he thought. And then, Whatever they pay Blair, it's not enough.
It turned out that Joel Taggart was actually very pleasant. He was polite. He listened. He didn't lie casually, the way most men did. And when you got past his aftershave, he smelled kind of nice. It was almost alarming. Marcia couldn't remember the last time she had actually *liked* anybody.
She hated the claustrophobia and vibration of elevators almost enough to walk up to the tenth floor, but Joel's current story was distracting enough to make it bearable. "So now," he was saying, "his desk is covered with all these brochures. You know, for archaeological vacations. The kind where you pay some college money for the privilege of excavating some old latrine or garbage pit."
Despite what the elevator was doing to her inner ear, Marcia laughed. "You're kidding."
"Oh, no. Brown has it narrowed down to two: a historic site outside of Boston, and a thousand year old Indian village in New Mexico. He'll have to send in a deposit for one or the other by next week."
"And I thought the National Parks Service was weird!"
"The National Parks Service?" The elevator doors opened, and Joel stood aside so she could exit first.
"Well, come to think of it, it was mostly the tourists that were eccentric...." Automatically, her hearing stretched out for her guide. He was lecturing the student on patience, grace, and living in the moment. It was, she thought, a lecture he was very good at, but even from the other end of the hall, she could hear the strain in his voice. Between the torn muscles on the side of his neck and the pain medication, everything was two or three times harder than normal. And frankly, even at the best of times, things were hard enough. That idiot Sandburg, for all that he was a trained guide, would never notice--
"Marcia? Marcia? Hey."
She started and looked away, suddenly embarrassed. She never used to zone. She didn't often now, but she'd done it here, in public, in front of Joel. Who had surely recognized it. Who smelled slightly worried and sympathetic. "Sorry," she said quickly. "Look, could you do me a favor? Your friend Sandburg has been here long enough. If you can move him along gently, Jack won't give me dirty looks for throwing him out."
"Oh. Sure. No problem. I'm sure Jack doesn't need to be up all night talking shop."
"I appreciate that." She'd had to remind herself about saying thank-you, but the smile was natural enough.
It took almost four minutes by Marcia's internal clock--which, while not what it was, was still accurate to thirty seconds on the hour--for Joel to lure the whiney student away. It was longer than she would have liked, but at least it was polite. As soon as they were gone, she shut the door and unpacked the take-out box. Jack eyed it hopefully. "What did you get?"
"Chicken pasta salad with sun dried tomatoes and that funny cheese. It won't be bad, actually. Don't look at me like that. Spaghetti and meatballs would be cold by now."
"So it has nothing to do with cholesterol or calorie content." He was looking a little smug, pleased that he could predict her.
She pretended to ignore his statement. "Also, this will be easier to eat left-handed." She adjusted the tray and laid out the food. "You don't have to eat it all, but finish the chicken. You are crying for protein."
"Yes, mom." Beneath that tease, though, he sounded slightly annoyed. He wasn't use to being fussed over. She squeezed his good shoulder and leaned over to bury her nose in his hair. Touch had been different between them when they'd been working together. Then it had been an efficient communication. Jack had monitored her with his hands, directed her attention, set her boundaries. Since retirement, though, he'd become downright....snuggly. Touch had become about affection and state of mind. He had used it, when she was sick, to comfort and steady her, to coax her body out of fighting itself. It wasn't the sort of tool, though, that you could use and still keep a professional distance. She knew how to touch him to make his smell lose its irritated or anxious edge. He was, from beginning to end, her dearest friend. When she used her hands to remind him of that, he stopped fighting the world.
Jack sighed. "Can you handle me at home? I have to admit, I'm a little worried."
Ah. Here was the problem. He could not transfer by himself. He could not do his exercises by himself. He could barely feed himself. It would be another week before any of this improved. Marcia pulled away and began to straighten the room. "We are not staying here. Besides, until the stitches come out, it isn't like you can do any real useful therapy. Might as well be there as here. We're going home tomorrow."
"You are very stubborn."
"Yes, and that's one of my good qualities. Eat."
"Are you listing the nagging as a good quality, too?" But he was picking at the food tiredly.
She took the fork and began to fish out bits of chicken. "It's only for a couple of weeks. We'll watch a lot of television. You'll read that new biography of Burton. You can grill those grad students who have taken over your classes. This is no problem."
"Right. No problem."
"I don't like this double standard. You never let me get all defeatist and depressed-smelling."
He managed a silent laugh. "Don't censor you by smell...."
"Jack. It will be all right. You've been through much worse than this. I mean...this is isn't *anything*, not to you. Not to us."
"Right...." She would have to accept that. He really was too tired to argue further. She gave up on the dinner he was too tired and sore to chew and took the container away. She could argue more tomorrow. There was plenty of time to bring him around.