Summary: In support of the ethical treatment of human subjects.
Author's Notes: For Martha, who gets anthropology.
Disclaimer: Not my characters.
Eli smiled when I opened the door. That surprised me. Of all the people I'd disappointed, only Eli was in a position to really understand what a disappointment I was. But I hadn't seen him in over a year, and certainly didn't expect to see him now, less than three weeks after I became a local embarrassment...and it was *good* to see him. I hadn't let myself think too much about how much I'd missed him. I smiled back.
"Hey! Wow. I had no idea you were here..." I trailed off, feeling awkward, remembering why I *should* feel awkward. "So. Ah. Hey, what brings you to town?"
"I came to see you." He took a deep breath. "Blair, we have a problem." He had stopped smiling.
I began to sweat, led him in, offered coffee. A problem. Around a dry mouth, I asked, "What kind of problem?"
"A number of students are taking you up as a cause. They've contacted the Triple A about making a scene on your behalf."
"What? Oh, God...." I dropped the bag of coffee, pushed it away, and paced to the living room. Eli followed me, delivering his bad news quietly and evenly:
"They are saying that since you never gave the completed document to your committee and never gave permission for it to be published... According to them, the worst you can be accused of is temporarily being blinded by the celebrity when your draft--which for all anyone knows is the draft of a novel or a stress-relief fantasy--was accidentally released. After all, the topic you've been talking about for the last three years wasn't sentinels, but police departments. And, everyone knows people take up odd hobbies when they're writing up...."
"Oh, God." It's all I can think of to say. It felt wonderful for someone to have faith in me, even in the face of the most damaging confession I could come up with. Students? Rainer students? My undergraduates or my peers? Someone thought I wasn't a fraud. Someone was making a fuss for me.
But--God--not this. Anything but this. I couldn't afford to have people look at this too closely. Besides, Jim would kill me if the press started calling again. Or maybe not. For the past three weeks he'd bounced between carefully solicitous and snippily tense with occasional interludes of weirdly jovial and mildly paranoid thrown in. To be frank, I had no idea how Jim would react to anything.
"The president of AAA this year is Millicent Howard. You remember, she came in to lecture when I was still at Rainier."
I tried to smile. "Right. The woman who runs around in bare feet." Eli used to tell stories about her in class. Howard once got into trouble for having her intro archeology students bring in fresh road kill in order to do experiments with stone tools. She also once tried to raise chickens, which didn't go over well with the authorities since she was living in downtown Chicago at the time.
"She's an old friend of mine. She called me to get my...perspective."
*It just gets worse and worse.* I sat down heavily, resting my face in my hands. "What did you say?"
"I said that I was very disappointed in you," he answered slowly. "That you were nearly obsessive about an untenable research topic, and that the best thing she could do was let things go."
"Eli, I'm really sorry --"
"*Now* you're sorry?"
"Eli, I'm sorry you got dragged into this. I never meant--" But of course my lack of ethics would have come back on Eli, too. Enough people knew that I had been his student to get it into the rumor mill.
"Putting me in a position where I had to lie for you was the least of it, Blair. My God, how did a publisher get a hold of your material? What were you using to protect confidentiality? You endangered the *life* of one of your informants! Never mind the emotional trauma you put him through."
I closed my eyes. I couldn't look at Eli. He had every reason to be ashamed of me, and he didn't even know about the informant I turned in to the police five months *before* the dissertation fiasco. The woman I promised confidentiality and privacy and then fingered for Jim without a second thought. But, hey, lucky for me she was catatonic and in no position to sue.
I swallowed hard, trying to keep the bitterness and shame off my face, but I must have failed because Eli sighed and said, "I'm sorry, Blair. I didn't come here for this. You did the right thing in the end, the best you could. An accident can happen to anyone. I can only hope that, in your place, I could do what was necessary as gracefully as you did. I came to warn you, because you need to know what's going on."
"That it was too little, too late."
"That it may not be over yet." He leaned out and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Son, I can't understand why you're still here. It can only make things worse, drawing more attention to him."
"He forgave me, Eli. He doesn't want...and, anyway, I'm the only one who understands...He still needs me. There isn't anyone to take my place."
"And since you can't publish, there isn't going to be," he sighed.
"I'm sorry." That part was my fault, too. Everything I'd learned about sentinels--things that could save people like Jim so much misery and pain--was classified as the fantasy of a fraud. As far as the anthropological world was concerned, I was another Castaneda. What I'd learned had been locked away and would have to stay that way. "I'm sorry."
"You're very lucky. In his place...I don't know if I could forgive you."
We sat in silence for a moment. Eli wouldn't look at me; too disappointed, too deeply pitying. He knew better than anyone how badly I fucked up, and he knew better than anyone how much it cost me.
"You'd better go," I said at last. "Jim will be home soon. He...won't understand what you're doing here."
"He'll think I'm here to get you to change your mind?"
"He doesn't know how well you know me. He'll think you're here to ream me out for being a fraud. And that'll really piss him off; he thinks I gave up my career because I love him."
"Love him? Like the big brother I never had. The best friend I ever did have. But the minute I endangered him I had no future as an anthropologist. The crash and burn was amazingly spectacular, I admit. But the end result would have been the same. I did damn near get one of my informants killed. Who would have hired me after that?"
"So it's better if he doesn't run into me."
I sighed. "So he doesn't have to defend me. Yeah."
Eli stood slowly. "I wish you luck, Blair."
"Thanks. Thanks for what you said to Howard. I, um, I...."
"I'm sorry, Blair."
"I can never repay you for this."
"I'll do what I can to protect you. But the rest of it's up to you." He shook my hand and left without looking back.
Jim came through the door about five minutes later, limping in a way that made me think at some point he'd tried to run up the stairs. He put the groceries he was carrying on the island and joined me on the couch, taking the spot Eli had left a few minutes before. "You ok?"
"I'm sorry. I know he was a friend of yours."
"Don't apologize. It wasn't your fault. None of it." I reached out and patted his good knee. Dear friend. He really did feel guilty. More so because he got what *he'd* wanted for a long time; me, all to himself, with no teaching or grading or studying to distract me.
"You've got your friends lying to protect me now."
"The only thing I regret is my stupidity and that I hurt you. And that I didn't tell you as soon as things started to go wrong. And that I didn't tell Mom the truth so that she was actually helping me with what I was doing rather than what she thought I was doing. And that I didn't change the damn diss topic and just explore the sentinel thing in a bunch of short articles, so I didn't have to leave in so many damning details. What was I talking about again?"
Jim tried to smile. "You have no regrets."
"How can I have regrets when what I lost was...was *nothing* compared to what I almost lost?"
"Yeah? You're not sorry? Cause where I'm sitting, it looks like you got the short end of the trade....I did notice that you do appear to have friends in the world who won't automatically think the worst of you the first time things look bad."
Which answered any questions I might have had about how much he'd heard.
"It's easy for them. I didn't hurt any of them. And what they think I did isn't half as bad as what I actually did."
Jim didn't answer that and wouldn't look at me. I wondered what he was thinking.
"I did try to stop it," I said, wondering--again--what I should have done differently, that first time Sid called. Jim remained silent, looking at the wall.
"Jim, it's ok if you're still angry--"
His head snapped around. He wasn't sulking, he was hiding tears. Shit. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He shook his head.
Slowly, I slid an arm around his shoulders. Having no idea what to say, I didn't say anything, just pulled him close and waited.
The tears didn't last long. Jim never learned how to cry. It confused him, made him frustrated. "I thought you would leave," he whispered, wiping the tears clumsily on his shoulder. "I thought you were finished, your research...I didn't even know it was done."
"Oh, God. I'm so sorry. I am. I never, I never got to say that, it was never enough. 'I'm sorry' doesn't solve anything. But, God, Jim, I'm *so* sorry. I never wanted to leave you. My friend. My partner. And I never wanted to see you hurt."
Jim had never been comfortable with excessive mushiness. Sap. Touchy-feelie new age navel gazing. Words so seldom have anything to do with truth. But this one time I let it all out, all the feelings I was in touch with. And this one time he listened, clinging to me, shaking. "I did want. In my heart, I did want the whole world to know how wonderful you are. That's why it was so hard to take your name out of it. But, I swear, I never would have...exposed you to that. I'm so sorry."
He pushed at me. "I know. I know. Do you think I don't know?"
"You weren't being unreasonable, Jim. You had a right to expect me to protect you." We were talking over each other, urgent and reaching.
"You did protect me. All you've done since you met me...."
He was crying again, and I couldn't stand it. "I'll do better, I promise. I promise."
"You gave up everything--"
"Nothing. Nothing--" Why wouldn't he believe me?
"I still have the life! God, Jim, I can live without the book, but not...not you."
He was still suddenly, and completely quiet. I cringed inwardly, wondering if I'd pushed him too far. But he just nodded slowly and whispered, "Ok." Then, still moving slowly, he pulled me close, resting his face in my hair. It was a very, very sentinel thing to do, gathering me in that way, focusing on my physical presence, touching to comfort and be comforted, despite thirty-four years of conditioning otherwise. It was a lovely and revealing gesture, but I didn't point it out to him; no matter how he expressed it, the moment was more about being my friend than being my sentinel, and I knew that.
I slid my hands around his waist and held on.