Paying Karma's Dues
Coming Up For Air #2

Summary: Second story in AU where Blair's an observer with Major Crimes and Jim's been misdiagnosed as autistic as a child. A little language, as usual.

Disclaimer: Unless I've been making up words again, everything is probably someone else's original idea. No copyright infringement intended to Pet Fly for the guys.


Ever get the feeling your karma payment is due and everyone forgot to tell you that this week's was a balloon payment? Yeah, I'm mixing my capitalism with my eastern philosophy here, but I could have really done without the last week.

It's Saturday morning and where am I? Where most Saturdays have been finding me for a while now -- Jim's studio. One 1920s stonework garage turned artist loft. You wouldn't really recognize it for a studio. Well you would, I mean the dozen finished and unfinished sculptures give it away. But the rest is still a garage. An immaculately clean garage, but a garage none the less.

It's quiet here. Jim is engrossed as he usually is. He sculpts with his eyes closed, which is weird to watch, but beautiful nonetheless. The way all things about Jim are beautiful. Jim is ... elemental. He is life not distracted by bills or cell phones or climbing your chosen ladder. Watching him is to realize you have nothing. It is also to realize you have everything in the whole damn world.

If I was lucky enough to actually have the whole damn world to give, I would give it not to have him hurt, but like I said, it's been one shitty week.

Simon has been, like, double-grande stressed, bringing the whole of Major Crimes to the brink of breakdown along with him. Some fruitcakes are taking on the tent community that's nestled itself down along the wharf. Five homeless men found dead in the past six weeks in the no man's land that's sprung up between the new waterfront condos along Breaker Point and the old warehouse district.

I won't even get into the arguments Simon and I have had, or what I think about the new Cascade ordinance making it a crime for the homeless to sit on the sidewalk, for anyone to be at a bus stop for more than thirty minutes at a time. Don't they realize there's an estimated 20 million people on the waiting list for public housing in this country? And how Simon ... I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to get into it.

We don't exactly have leads. Okay, yes, I know what I just said, I'll talk about when "they" became "we" some other time, probably with my diss advisor and it won't be pretty. The most persistent street rumor is that a pack of young men is picking on the homeless for some kind of sick thrills.

Only one case so far even has a witness, and, well, "Cadillac" Alvarez isn't exactly someone an ADA would want to put before a jury. Besides the best description we could get out of him was "a bunch of assholes" were beating Frank Washington in a downtown alley. Frank died a week later without ever regaining consciousness. No one has yet figured out if he was part of the pattern, or just an exception.

The press is having a field-day touting 'possible serial killer'. Hell, it's sweeps month. Expose central. The local Fox station is following us around with handcams for that 'cops on patrol' look.

Anyway, when I'm not trying to play liaison between cops and homeless, or cops and condo-dwellers, I'm helping with the foot patrols the shelters have set up to coax everyone they can into safer locations. All this barely left me time for the most basic commitments at the U and I hadn't been to see Jim in a week.

If I were prepared to be honest with myself, uh, not that I'm sure I am -- I'd admit it was, in a way, an easy out. I still don't quite understand the place I have suddenly come to occupy in Jim Ellison's life. At least the place he believes I occupy. Which is apparently the same unnamed place Steven seems to think I belong. Their father just looks at me with a frown like 'what the hell is he doing here again' and goes back to reading his financial pages. He'd be surprised to know I was basically thinking the same thing.

Okay, I understand something about Jim that no one else does, but Jim - as much as I hate to say this - I don't think he's capable of knowing that. For one thing I haven't even attempted to tell him. We've had progress, but Jim's progress is in inches. Not that I'm complaining. With what Jim's been through, inches are great.

We've got name signs now. Give me a Dummies' Guide to ASL and I'm dangerous. "Father" for William and "brother" for Steven were no-brainers. Sally -- I thought about Sally a lot. Finally assigned her the sign for "love" since it's pretty close to the self-taught sign Jim normally makes when he wants to be comforted, a kind of "I want you to hug me" gesture. As for mine, I seriously considered "professor" but the sign was a little too daunting, so I settled for a hand curled around the other wrist, fingertips at the pulse point.

The whole name thing was a hit. Jim caught on nearly instantaneously, like he was just waiting for someone to help out with the communication problem. And like any developing child, brain latching onto new information, he quickly turned his newfound words into negatives by turning his head while signing, obviously dismissing you. No father. No brother. No Sally. No Blair. You're not who I want. Steven is probably the first sibling to be overjoyed when his older brother signed the equivalent of "leave me alone I want Sally."

But, what with all the problems at the wharf, I don't know how long I'd have stayed away if Steven hadn't called and told me to get my butt down there. All right, he's an Ellison, he didn't say "Sandburg get your butt over here." He said, "Jim needs you." And to that I couldn't say no -- even if it did entail leaving the bullpen under full Simon-glare when I was supposed to be spending the afternoon "facilitating" the investigation down at the soup kitchen where the newest victim was last seen.

For once Jim doesn't meet me at the door. It's Sally instead, pointing me upstairs where I'd yet to venture. Jim's bedroom is on the right at the top of the stately hardwood risers. It's a freaky-shit kind of scary bedroom in a way, at least if you're Naomi Sandburg's son and once made do with one-fourth of a Volkswagen Kombi. It's the kind of bedroom kids on TV sitcoms had when I was growing up. Sports trophies on the shelves, half-finished model planes on the desk, Kipling and London lined neatly on the windowsill in front of plaid curtains. I didn't believe rooms like these really existed.

Jim is hunched in a chair in the corner. Steven springs from his perch on the bed and draws me in with the news that Jim's been signing for me. Except that he's not signing now. Jim's staring vacantly at the floor, not registering anything. Where I lay my palm against his cheek, his skin is cool and flaccid. I stroke a hand along his hairline hoping touch, the sense he has the most control over, will be enough to bring him out of it.

"How long ago did he stop?"

"About an hour."

I nod like this means something. Like I know. I worry about his breathing and heart rate. How deep could he go? So deep he could forget to breathe?

"Jim, hey, I'm here now, buddy." I continue stroking his cheek, adding quiet pleas to the mix. I pray silently to a few of Naomi's more understanding gods - the kind that don't mind you haven't bothered to worship them before.

I don't see recognition in his face, so when a freezing hand touches mine I nearly jump out of my skin. In that second he is animated again, the familiar hand circling my wrist, confused blue eyes darting quick, shy glances into mine, unwilling to hold my gaze but somehow desperate to see something there. I try to reassure him, ending up, somehow, with Jim's arms wrapped around me, the side of his face pressed against my chest. We remain that way for a long time and I hear myself promising never to stay away so long again.

Then, with the inevitability of destruction all such moments face, the cell rings and it doesn't help it's "I Shot the Sheriff". It still leaves Jim a fetal ball in the chair's cushions, his hands leaving me as he clutches his ears to mute the sound. I'm quick, but not quick enough to prevent a second rendition. I guess Simon was right and it wasn't really funny after all.

One of my hands rubs Jim's shoulder, the other holds the phone way away from my ear as Simon is shouting in his no-Sandburg-I'm-not-shouting voice. For his real bellows I'd need to toss the thing a few feet away.

"Sandburg!"

Yep, that would be me. I stroke Jim's arm in mute apology as Steven tries to gently lower Jim's hands.

"I need you down here."

"Okay, Simon. Okay." I try to move away, remove the cacophony of noise seeping through the phone. "What's going on? It sounds like you're in the middle of a riot."

"That's what it's going to be if my so-called facilitator doesn't get down here."

"What happened?"

Four cops and they couldn't even handle a simple community meet-and-greet?

"Yes, Sandburg, we could."

Shit. I said that, didn't I?

"We just didn't expect a delegation from BPCA."

Steven has coaxed Jim's hands down and is working on getting Jim to look at him. When he overloads, Jim's first reflex is to close his eyes, shut out the stimuli that's easiest to get rid of.

My mind scrambles to make sense of the alphabet soup. "BPCA?"

"Breaker Point Condo Association."

"Fuck."

"That about covers it," agrees Simon.

"Give me a few minutes."

Simon grumbles something but the phone's already on its way back on my belt.

"Hey, Big Guy." For me, Jim opens his eyes. "Listen." He looks down and I carefully cup a hand beneath his jaw, drawing his face upward, "Hey, listen to me here. I've got to go back to work, but I promise I'll be back tomorrow. Okay?

Tomorrow is Saturday and you've got me all day, I promise."

When he needs it to be, Jim's grip is strong. My wrist is quickly encircled in his long fingers. At times like these I wonder if he understands more of what we say than we think because he obviously knows I'm trying to leave. And doesn't approve of the idea one bit.

"Uh, Jim, you need to let me go. I have to go sort something out."

No dice. Steven steps in and tries to break his lock on my arm, eliciting a shriek of near-panic from his brother. Every attempt I make to free myself is likewise aborted and I begin to realize I'm stuck in this newfound role of security blanket. At least my other hand is free to reach the phone so I can make another call to Simon, whose yelling - this time - can barely be heard over the growing shouts in the background. Maybe now they'll rethink blowing part of the budget on a real community liaison next year.

Staying is not sounding like an option. Getting Jim to disentangle himself is not seeming too viable either. I shrug helplessly at Steven and ask if he could drive us all downtown. Maybe by the time we get there I'll have convinced Jim that letting go of my arm is workable plan. If not, maybe I can play peacemaker from Steven's Mercedes - now there would be a sight.

The closer we get to the waterfront, the more that it's looking like that might be the only way I'd get to work what Brown still calls my "mumbo-jumbo." Jim is not in a letting-go mood. He's practically hysterical every time I try to gently pry his fingers from their grip-of-death.

I've said it before; Jim was not what I was expecting when I finally found a Sentinel. Sure, there was more than a little childhood fantasy mixed in with my conception, but I thought heightened senses would at least not be a curse. Maybe I was looking for a father, maybe I was looking for a grown-up's version of Superman. But who the hell would have known that what it'd come down to in reality was that I was just looking for my newfound Sentinel to have the capability to understand I needed him to let go of my arm. Shit. Sometimes I want to cry too.

There is no getting him to release his stranglehold. As the car pulls to a stop outside the shelter I look at the sign-holding, chanting protestors wearing two-hundred dollar loafers and think if only Naomi could see this ... protestors in Gucci and her son on the side of the pigs in blue. One last time I try to remove my Sentinel bracelet, then decide that if Jim wouldn't let go of me, he'll just have to go with me. I expect that this won't be an option. I’m wrong.

As long as he has me securely captured, Jim seems willing to traverse the unfamiliar and noisy territory. Surprises the hell out of Simon. Well, actually, surprised the hell out of me, too.

"Sandburg?"

Disapproval, surprise and a question all in one noun. Simon is definitely making progress in the communication department. In the same spirit of abbreviated conversation I gestured down to my tightly gripped appendage.

"Mr. Ellison," Simon offers his hand to Steven who’s keeping a protective guard over his brother's side. "You didn't have to come down here."

Steven shrugs in the good-natured way of someone who has had to buy practically every brand of orange juice that exists to find the one Jim would drink. And that one only works nine months out of the year.

Sizing up my personal contingent, Simon reaches a large hand and covers Jim's. In the gentle tone he dregs up for the school groups that visit the PD, he gets Jim's attention.

"Mr. Ellison. Jim. You're going to have to let him go. I need him." I almost gasp as blue eyes meet brown for longer than I've ever seen Jim sustain a gaze. "I'll take care of him. I'll bring him back to you, but you have to let go of his wrist. These people need to talk to him."

Jim studies the captain's face seriously then slowly releases me. It’s about then I remember to breathe.

"Go do your thing, Sandburg," Simon says gruffly.

It's not often I'm speechless. Simon had better enjoy it while he can.

 

~oOo~

 

"I've got a theory."

Simon looks up from the folding chair he's collapsed into after shaking the hands of the last of the brand new "Waterfront Community Task Force." Six condo-dwellers, six representatives from the shelter. And only three hours to get them to agree to come back tomorrow and disagree in a more formal fashion.

"About the murders or the community issues?"

"About Jim ..." I look around. "Did they go home?"

The good captain is beat. Murder he can handle. It's the negotiation stuff that gets him.

"No, Steven couldn't get him to leave." He waves tiredly in the direction of the docks. "Think he took his brother for a walk."

"You let them go for a walk? Out there? Simon, there's at least one, if not more, psychos running around down here. Steven looks like the poster child for 'Rich Victims of the Crudely Armed' and Jim ... Jim's not capable of even calling out for help."

Simon flashes white teeth in a grin that would have made me shiver when I first got my observer's badge. "He seemed pretty capable of keeping you on a short leash."

"Yeah, and I wanted to talk to you about that. About that little ... conversation the two of you seemed to have. But first I have to go rescue the two innocents abroad."

What the hell was Steven thinking? And Simon? I mean this was not the place for a man dressed like Steven to be sightseeing. The condo-dwellers at least had the good sense to travel in packs to their cars, all the while being judiciously guarded by Cascade's finest. Never mind the whole damn place is like a Sentinel minefield.

Up 37th to the inappropriately named Buena Vista. No sign of them. Back down Buckingham. Nothing. Well, I was propositioned twice. Once by a skuzzy looking businessman with a bad toupee and a top-of-the-line rental car, and then by Katy Woo who's working undercover Vice in a leather mini-skirt and fishnets. Just my luck that Katy was kidding and the other guy wasn't.

Back around Depot I started to get a kind of crawly feeling. The sort of thing Naomi pays good money to try to experience, when the cosmic powers all line up and thump you on the head to get your attention. I definitely felt I was being followed. The two guys behind me could be out on the dockworker's equivalent of a brisk walk around the park, though it was doubtful.

This isn't the kind of thing you shrug off, but you're a lot less worried when you know that four blocks away is a very imposing police captain with genuine liability worries where your safety is concerned. And all you have to do is push a button and the cell phone will almost instantly connect you.

Shit.

If the battery hadn't run out.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I'm trying to stop hearing the voice of Simon Banks in my head berating me for -- yes, Sandburg, once again - not charging the phone. Plus suddenly I'm fighting off the familiar beginnings of a panic attack. Six friggin’ years in therapy and the things are supposed to be gone. This isn't yet an emergency. In reality no one has even made a move toward me. There's only a couple guys walking up the street behind me. There's no proof they mean me any harm.

I have no idea where the third one came from. Even now I have no idea. He’s just ... there. Makes you understand how terrorists could take over airplanes with box cutters because the rusty, plastic-handled specimen he's currently holding up for my inspection looks as scary as any gun I have ever seen.

Flight or fight, as options, give way almost immediately. I make the universal signal of capitulation and raise my hands, body language practically screaming "No threat! No threat!"

"Whatever you want, man, take it. It's yours."

By now, the duo who've been tailing me are coming up behind. I'm thinking there's maybe, maybe a grand total of three dollars in my wallet, which is small enough to get me killed when they discover they've lucked into committing a 10-51 on a starving grad student.

Mr. Rusty Boxcutter is looking over my shoulder in a glazed-out sort of way and there's no way anything I've got is gonna buy much of whatever chemical mixture he's currently enjoying.

Uh, the sequence of events gets a little confused after that. One of the duo decides holding my hands up in complete surrender isn't sufficient and what I am really in need of is a good old-fashioned chokehold. So this arm wraps itself around my throat and it wasn't like I wasn't having enough trouble breathing just standing there facing things sharp and rusted.

Between hyperventilating and having my neck crushed I blacked out momentarily. So, I'm not sure when Jim arrived. I only know he probably went after the guy holding me first, which was a mistake because by the time I came around the box cutter had seen action.

By the time I get my worthless ass back in gear, the perps are all subdued. It takes me a moment to understand how I’m looking slightly down at them but then I realize Jim is sitting against the side of a warehouse, his legs out straight, with me cradled against him. He’s breathing heavily, his eyes glassy and as I try to move from his grasp, his arms simply slid away from me to fall limply to the sidewalk.

"Jim?"

Jim turns his head to the left and I follow his gaze to see Steven appear, his trot gathering speed as he sees us. I can hear him panting into the phone the approximate address and a plea for an ambulance.

The sensation of liquid warmth that had been there when I woke is turning cold and clammy since I've pulled myself up, but even when I look down at the crimson stain I don't register what it means. It takes Steven's soft curse as he drops beside us to fully awaken me from my stupor.

The wounds are deep and Jim is pale and sweaty. I ghost my hands over the cuts. Afraid to touch. Afraid to even think what the pain is like for Jim. What a rusty blade felt like opening up his sensitive skin.

Steven is fashioning makeshift bandages from his jacket and tie. I’m concentrating on trying to get Jim to look at me, to distract him from falling further inward. The same nonsense I'd muttered earlier in the day, this time, brings no response. Again and again I called his name, smooth back his hair, only to have him remain frozen, still staring off to where Steven had first appeared.

"Fuck," I finally say softly, the prickling behind my eyes spilling into tears, something that hadn't happened to me ... hell, since that first night in the dorm at Rainer when I was sixteen. Steven puts a hand on my shoulder and I shrug it off. His hands could be put to better use slowing the flow of life reddening, it seems, everything -- Steven's jacket, the sidewalk, the front of my secondhand flannel shirt.

I put my forehead to Jim's and plead, the damn tears dripping off my nose, apologizing for everything I'd done wrong in the past few weeks. For not knowing how to help any more than I do. For not finding some way of staying with him today. For bringing more chaos into his already inexplicable world.

It isn't like earlier in the day. Jim doesn’t come back suddenly. First he frowns as if vaguely aware of something disturbing. Then a soft moan rises from his throat. He sniffs the air and frowns deeper, his head turning slightly but tilting downward the way it does when he's concentrating on non-visual input.

I wonder if he’s putting the pieces of me and Steven together, our scent, the beat of our hearts, the careful touches we’re both bestowing. It's easy to wonder why the hell Jim doesn't just look at us, see that we're there, see we're all right, but I don't think it works that way for him. I think he has to construct the world like a jigsaw puzzle before he can handle it. A piece at a time. I think that vision is too much if he doesn't have the rest of it under control.

I’m watching him, marveling at his straining to get back to us even when those cuts must be agony, when he’s as scared as Steven and I are. I’m so entranced that if Steven hadn't started tugging at my sleeve I might have remained completely oblivious to the fact that Jim wasn't the only one regaining awareness.

I turn around to find Steven pointing his Nokia defensively at the box cutter creep. Jim had done a pretty good number on him. The current faraway look in his eyes is more likely the result of the knot on his head than his local unlicensed pharmacist. With relief I realize the rusty blade is now in Jim's clenched hand, not his. Disarmed, the guy looks smaller. He sways for a minute, staring at us, before taking off in a loping run and pounding straight into six-plus-feet of solid police captain.

 

~oOo~

 

The hospital is not a place I'd ever want to subject Jim to for very long but there really wasn't any choice this time. He’s going to need stitches and I’m worried how we’re going to know if there are other injuries. His left arm is slashed deeply in at least three places and still bleeds despite the pressure Steven is keeping on it. Another cut crosses the back of his right hand but it isn't apparently worth losing the grip he'd gotten on my wrist when I'd knelt back down to examine him. A shallower cut has narrowly missed his left eye and trails a thin stream of red down his cheek.

My breathing hitches hard when I think about what we have to get through in the next few minutes - EMTs, an ambulance, Cascade General's crowded and noisy ER. I want quiet for Jim. I want to make this as easy as possible.

"Simon!" Jim starts, tightening his grip, and I lower my voice. "Sirens, Simon. No sirens."

I tend to underestimate Jim. I don't know why I thought that a man who had just saved me from armed attackers would fall apart at the approach of EMTs. He didn't. He doesn't let go of my arm, but he lets them wrap the wounds and accepts getting onto the gurney, crying only when he loses hold of me and Steven. The EMTs aren't thrilled with transporting a patient and two shaky passengers, but there are some things you just have to live with.

It takes a spectacular hundred-sixty-eight stitches to close the cuts but all that's left to show this morning for our brush with the less stellar denizens of the docks are some white bandages rapidly turning the color of clay and a couple butterfly band aids bridging the thin red line on his cheek

So now I'm sitting here on a Saturday morning watching Jim feel his way to the wolf inside the mound of clay and figuring maybe that progress I thought I was seeing was more feet than inches.

Knowing I'm observing him, Jim turns toward me. He makes the sign for my name and touches the wolf.

-end-