New Arrivals
Author-Ice Bear

Collateral Damage
by Ice Bear

Summary: A traffic accident involving a high school quarterback brings Jim face to face with some of the demons from his past - as seen through Blair's eyes.

Disclaimer: All things Sentinel belong to Pet Fly and Paramount.

It was supposed to be the end of a long day. We’d just finished interviewing four witnesses in a jewelry heist and were headed home. We both needed some down time, and since it was Friday, I was hoping for a quiet evening. My partner needed it more then I did, but he would never voice it. Nope, not my stoic Sentinel.

Jim’s focus was on the road. He was silent, withdrawn even, but given the last couple of weeks; I wasn’t surprised or necessarily even worried. He just needed a couple of nights sleep and a few good meals – not of the Wonder Burger variety either – and he’d be good as new.

You’d think I’d have figured out by now that just when I’m finally convinced we can relax – trouble finds us. And that afternoon proved to be no exception. I was lost in my own thoughts when Jim’s “Damn” cut the silence. His head was cocked, and he was reaching for the lights and siren. “Accident, at least two cars, about a mile and a half from here,” he said in answer to my silent question.

He drove like a madman – but then again, that’s the only way he knows how - and got us to the scene in 3 minutes. I didn’t see any other lights so I placed a call for backup and an ambulance. Jim was out of the truck before I finished. I watched him check the blue SUV and figured the driver was okay. He pointed me toward the SUV and headed for the green compact. I knew something was really wrong there as soon as I saw his head swivel to find me.

I quickly checked on the SUV driver, who was conscious but clearly drunk. I knew this from the smell as well as the sight of at least 7 beer bottles on the floor. I shook my head sadly and headed for my partner.

Jim had wedged himself into the small car – truly an act of mind over matter - considering his 6 foot frame – and was talking quietly to the driver. As I drew closer I realized it was a teenager and there was blood everywhere. I came around to the passenger side. Jim turned to look at me, and the pain in his eyes stunned me for a moment. But then he was all business, asking for the blanket and the first aid kit from the truck. I hurried to do as he asked, stopping only to direct the first uniform on the scene to the man in the SUV.

I handed the requested items to my partner, who thanked me and then introduced me to his patient, Tom Cawley. Jim told me that Tom was a quarterback for the Cascade High Timberwolves and wore his old number. He also told me, with a hint of a smile, that Tom was working on breaking his old rushing record. The young man - he was probably 17 but sitting there scared and dripping with blood, he looked about 12 - tried to grin as he announced that the record was as good as his.

Jim recited a phone number and asked me to call Tom’s father. Tom pleaded softly – I could barely hear him – that his father had an important meeting and shouldn’t be bothered. My partner tensed at that statement, and I knew what thoughts were running through his head, but he simply reassured Tom that his father would want to know and started asking questions about his coaches.

I called that damn number six times and not once would they put me through to Mr. Cawley. I begged, I pleaded, I threatened bodily harm, but was met with the same line ‘I’m sorry but Mr. Cawley is not to be disturbed for any reason’ each and every time. I knew Jim heard all this because he turned fully away from the young boy for the first and only time and whispered that I was to send a uniform to arrest the son of a bitch if that’s what it took to get him here. I could tell from the mixture of anger and fear in my partner’s eyes that his charge was in serious trouble, but before I could ask, he’d turned back to Tom.

I called Simon and asked him to take care of the kid’s father, which he eagerly agreed to do once I explained the circumstances. Then, at Jim’s over the shoulder request, I called the football coach, Coach Hughes, and asked if he could come. He wrote down the intersection, told me to tell Cawley he was on his way, and hung up.

Jim started telling stories about Coach Hughes - seems he’d been an assistant when Jim was playing - and had Tom laughing, as hard as a kid in that much pain could. The EMTs finally arrived, and I was not surprised when my partner ordered them to work around him. After their initial check, I knew they understood why Jim had refused to move.

I don’t think I’d ever heard Jim talk so much and certainly never about himself. I learned more about my partner in the short time he talked to that dying child, than I had in all our years together. He and Tom compared teachers – including the history teacher, Ms. Brown, who was as big a pain in the butt today as she had been more then 20 years ago. Tom suddenly cried out in pain, and Jim grabbed his right hand in both of his and told him to squeeze as hard as he could. It served to refocus the kid’s attention away from the pain.

When the kid apologized for acting like a baby, I thought I’d scream, but my strong, silent partner simply smiled and told him that admitting it hurt had everything to do with being a man. He launched into a story about Peru – something only accomplished as a result of dire threats from me – regarding the Shaman reading him the riot act for refusing to admit he’d hurt his shoulder. He reassured the young man that it was alright to hurt; alright to say it out loud; and if he had to yell or scream or cry; that was okay, too. I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of anyone as I was of my partner at that very moment.

Coach Hughes arrived and the EMTs, after quietly explaining the situation, led him to the mangled driver’s side window. He placed a fatherly hand on the left shoulder and told his player it would be alright. Tom told the Coach that Jim didn’t believe he was going to break his record, and the Coach started telling stories about my uptight, law abiding partner and some of the less then legal antics of his youth. Tom was trying hard not to laugh because it hurt, while Jim was busy arguing that the Coach had him confused with some other quarterback.

Tom interrupted his Coach at some point to ask about his father. Jim didn’t hesitate; he told the kid that his father was getting a police escort to the scene. Tom dropped his head and whispered that his father would be mad about the car. Jim’s slender fingers gently tipped the bloody chin up, and those sky blue eyes confronted the dark green ones. He told Tom in carefully annunciated words the only thing his father was worried about was his son - cars were easily replaced, sons were not. Jim knew, hell I knew, the kid didn’t really believe him, but he desperately wanted to – that much was clear.

Jim looked back at me, and I wanted nothing more then to grab him and run as far and as fast as we could. This was hitting way too close to home, and it was hurting my friend. My cell rang, and I stepped back to answer it. It was Simon; he had the kid’s father; but they were only just now leaving his office. I told Simon we were running out of time.

My Sentinel heard, of course. He asked Tom if he could attend the game where his record would be broken. The kid’s voice hitched for a moment, whether in pain or not, I don’t know. His green eyes focused on my partner again, and he said he’d like it if Jim would come to all his games, since his father was never able to make them. My heart broke right there. How Tom understood, even through his pain, that he’d found a kindred brother, I’ll never know. Jim brought his forehead down to touch the kid’s, and he started talking softly. I didn’t hear it all, but what I did hear moved me deeply. Jim told this lost child how important he was; reminded him of all the people who cared about him; and told him that as he got older he’d understand – not forgive, but understand – why his father was the way he was.

The kid pulled back for a moment, eyes closed tightly in pain. When they opened again, he softly asked if he was going to die. Coach Hughes started to say something, but Jim stopped him. He placed a hand tenderly on the pale face, and looked him in the eye. A small nod and Tom leaned forward into Jim’s waiting arms. My partner gently embraced him; whispering words I couldn’t hear as the life slipped quietly away.

When he was gone, Jim placed a kiss on the cooling forehead before releasing the body and moving stiffly out of the cramped space. He was covered in blood and glass from the broken windshield. He stood silently as the EMTs checked him over to make sure he hadn’t been cut. When they cleared him, he turned to Coach Hughes, and thanked him for coming. The older man held out his hand for a handshake, and used it as leverage to envelope my weary partner in a bear hug. After a second’s hesitation, Jim returned the embrace. The Coach whispered to him, Jim nodded, and the older man moved away.

Jim turned toward me, and I went to him. We stood for I don’t know how long, Jim’s head on my shoulder; his body trembling. We didn’t speak, there simply were no words. He moved out of my embrace when he heard Simon’s voice. A 40 something man in a very expensive suit was yelling at the Captain about the car and insurance. I placed a restraining hand on my partner, afraid what he would do, but he remained in place, watching the two men move toward the stretcher where Tom’s body lay, having just been extracted from the wreckage.

The man started complaining about the car and the insurance premiums until Simon pointed to the bloody body. As the EMTs moved the blanket up over the still face, the man swore once and then started asking questions about who was at fault. At that point Jim pulled away from me and headed for the truck. I followed, as he knew I would, and caught the keys when he tossed them. I drove us home, knowing Simon would figure out where to find us. I wrapped a steadying arm around my partner as we made our way to the loft and let go, only after he’d voiced his need for a shower. I retrieved clean clothes and left them on the toilet. Needing something to do, I started a fire, feeling cold, and went to fix tea and soup – not that I thought either one of us felt like eating – but it kept me busy.

The water ran much longer then the hot water tank warranted, but I decided to leave it alone, for now. I had a mug of tea ready when he finally exited, and I followed him to the couch. I tucked a blanket around him; fiddled with the fire; and then joined him. We leaned against each other for a while before he offered me a sad smile and a slight nod of thanks for the tea. He declined the soup and headed upstairs about an hour later. I doubted he’d sleep – didn’t think either of us would - but he clearly needed some space, and that, at least, I could give him. We’d tackle the rest of it tomorrow, together.

Coffee was on the table, along with eggs and toast, when I stumbled out of the shower the next morning. Jim was on the phone, but gestured for me to start. He walked to the balcony, so I couldn’t make out who was on the phone. When he finished, he put his plate in the microwave for a minute before joining me. He took two forkfuls of eggs and stopped.

He looked at me thoughtfully as though deciding whether he could share something. Apparently I passed the test because he started telling me about his phone conversation with Coach Hughes. The Timberwolves had a game this afternoon, and the Coach had asked Jim to come talk to the players about Tom. I wanted to protest, but looking into those eyes, I saw the need in my partner to do something – anything - to try and make sense of this terrible tragedy. So I nodded encouragingly and asked if I could come. You’d have thought I’d handed the man a million dollars or season tickets to the Jags, based on the smile I received in return.

We went by the station, and Jim wrote his report before we headed for the high school. Jim parked by the football stadium, turned off the truck, and sat stock still. So I did what I do best, I started talking. I reminded him of how these young kids were going to need support from someone who understood what it was like when you’d lost your friend; who knew about working when your heart wasn’t in it. When that didn’t seem to move him, I reminded him that Tom would want to know that his friends and teammates were okay. That sparked something. He said he wasn’t sure what he’d ever done without me, but was glad he didn’t have to live that way anymore.

I followed him under the stands into an alien culture – at least to me – the locker room. Under different circumstances, I would have been excited to have this inside look at primitive male bonding, but now I could only hope to provide the support my partner needed to make it through this.

The team was dressed and sitting on benches, heads down. The Coach introduced my partner as a friend of Tom’s. Jim told some silly story about a locker room stunt he’d pulled on a defensive tackle, and the fact that he and his teammates were “punking” people long before that guy Ashton made it into a TV show. This earned him a laugh. And I was forcibly reminded that my partner was a natural leader of men. A picture popped into my head of Jim, in his Army fatigues, giving a briefing to a group of guys, not much older then these boys, before they headed for the Peru. I shook my head to clear out that snap shot and returned my attention to the present.

He talked about the importance of friendship, and recounted a story Tom told him about the offensive line. And he told them that, while the last place they wanted to be right now was on the football field, that is exactly where their quarterback would expect them to be. It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t be fun, not today. When they were older, they would look back on this game and know they had stepped up in the face of adversity and done their job. It was a hard lesson, one he dearly wished they didn’t have to learn at their age, but life didn’t always wait until we were ready.

His sky blue eyes roved the locker room slowly, making sure he looked each and every player in the eye as he spoke. He finally focused on the sophomore quarterback and gave him an encouraging smile. He reminded the rest of the team of the importance of helping their quarterback. He had big shoes to fill, but Tom had told him the kid was a keeper. He urged them to support each other and to feel free to talk with the coaching staff if they weren’t comfortable talking to their parents or friends about their feelings. He also said he’d leave his number in the Coach’s office for anyone who’d be more comfortable talking to someone outside of the team.

He paused for a moment, looking back; I was sure, to his own time in this room. Then he reminded them that feelings, including sorrow, sadness, and loss – any and all of them - were normal and they shouldn’t be afraid to express them. In fact, it was healthy to grieve. They just needed to support each other, as friends and teammates do, and to remember that each grieves in his own way. There was no ‘right’ way to feel and no timeframe on grief.

He thanked them for listening to an old guy, which made them chuckle – as I’m sure he knew it would – and he told them he’d be rooting for them today, and for the rest of the season, as Tom had asked him to the games.

I followed him out from under the stands. He stopped as soon as we were outside and leaned back gratefully against the cement wall, taking in a large breathe of air. He thanked me again for being there with him and, before I could respond, asked if I wanted a hot dog. I smiled my answer and happily followed him to the concession stand. We loaded up on everything and anything that had lard, sugar, or fat. I followed Jim up to the back of the stands, high above the field. We settled in, divided up our munchies and watched the game.

He talked to me, in snatches over the next week, about Tom; about the waste of a wonderful young man; about the stupidity of his father (both his and Tom’s, although he never said so explicitly); and how good it made him feel to get calls from several of the players.

We went to every Timberwolves game, including the away ones. Simon seemed to understand, without my having to beg, about their importance to Jim. I learned a lot about football sitting with “Coach” Ellison and a lot about his childhood, as well. There was something about sitting in the cool fall air, with the blanket of night surrounding us that must have made it easier for him to talk. It was a gift I will always treasure.

At the final game of the season they retired Tom’s jersey. Jim was very quiet that night. He’d been invited – actually we’d both been invited – to sit on the bench with the team, and couldn’t refuse. He had a word of encouragement and praise for every player that came to talk to us. And he stood, soldier straight, as Tom’s jersey was raised above the stadium broadcasting booth. I caught him scanning the crowd several times, although he’d never admit it - he was looking for Mr. Cawley, who wasn’t there.

The team ended the season with a win and a strong 6 and 4 record. Not good enough for the playoffs, but a solid season nonetheless. We promised to attend the team dinner, and headed home. Jim moved to the balcony with a beer as soon as he hit the loft. I kept my jacket on and joined him.

I was worried for a few minutes when he started in on Mr. Cawley. If my partner ever happened across Tom’s father, well it wouldn’t be pretty. Once Jim had vented his rage, he seemed to let it go. We sat for a long time in comfortable silence, Jim staring at the stars.

When I made a move to rise, he asked me to stay. He asked me how a parent could ignore their kid. He didn’t want or expect an answer so I didn’t even try. Then he mentioned Carolyn and how, when they first got married, he was hoping for children. He’d really wanted a son, he told me almost shyly, someone he could teach to hunt and fish and play football. He’d dreamed about going to the games to see his kid play, and how he’d make every game.

He paused and caught my eye, and I smiled encouragingly as I knew where this was going. His father, he said, maybe didn’t have a chance to get it right, being left to raise two kids on his own. That didn’t excuse him, but maybe it helped explain some of it. He didn’t ponder what might have been – Jim didn’t believe in living in the past – but he did wish, stating how foolish it was - that Tom’s father had showed up before he’d died. He hated the fact the kid had died alone.

I spoke up to remind my partner that Tom had not been alone. In fact, he had died surrounded by people who cared for him, and the last thing he had known was a warm embrace. I turned to face my friend and that’s when the tears finally started to cascade down his noble face.