Thanks to everyone who read and to Ghostwriter, MelsieR, and Callisto's Moon for reviewing.
"What did you do to him?"
Alex was focused on the report in front of him, and it took a few seconds for the words to penetrate. When they did, he looked up from his computer to find a vaguely familiar-looking girl glaring at him. Short, dark hair, he was fairly sure he'd seen her at the station a few times although he didn't encourage people who weren't on the squads to hang around...right, Val's friend. Jamie's friend, too. Caitie something. "I'm sorry?" he asked.
Her eyes narrowed further and she crossed her arms over her chest. "I asked what you did to Jamie."
"What? Nothing." Something caught in Alex's chest abruptly because he hadn't seen Jamie since he'd left for school this morning. Of course there was no reason that he should have, not when it wasn't even five yet and Jamie wasn't on duty this afternoon, but he found himself pushing up from his desk anyway. "Did something happen?"
"You tell me."
Alex didn't appreciate her tone, especially since now he was worried about Jamie, and he was opening his mouth to tell her so when she continued.
"None of us saw him at all last weekend, he's barely hung out with us at school this week—and it's not because he's been in detention or working or whatever either—and even when he is around he doesn't talk to anyone. Not for real; not to me or Kenny or any of us. And Val says he's been weird with the super squad too. So what did you do to him?"
"I didn't—" Alex shook his head. "I haven't done anything to him. I wouldn't do anything to him."
"Yeah, right. Usually he just takes off when the foster creep of the week gets nasty with him so why hasn't he done that this time?"
The fact that there was a 'usually' included in that statement was more than slightly disturbing, as was the matter of fact way she said it, but at least it didn't sound like anything new was wrong and the knot in his chest released a little. "I did not do anything to Jamie," he repeated. "Whether or not he chooses to tell you and the rest of his friends why he's upset is his decision."
"So you admit he's upset."
"I don't recall denying it, but then, you've barely let me finish a sentence between accusations." There was a reason that he dealt with only a small group of teenagers, most of whom were self-described overachievers, on a regular basis.
Her teeth clicked together audibly over whatever she'd been about to say next, but Alex's thoughts were already elsewhere because hadn't actually realized that Jamie hadn't been spending time with his friends lately. He'd known that Jamie had spent most of last weekend in his room, sure, that hadn't been a surprise after the doctor's appointment despite their talk, and since he'd come out for meals and television when Alex had tapped on the door Alex had figured that things were about as good as they could be. That Jamie would be back to feeling like himself given a little more time.
But now that she'd mentioned it, Jamie had been beating him home all week. Or almost all week since he'd worked Tuesday, but even if Alex had had hospital shifts Monday and Wednesday they'd been early ones so he'd been done by eight both nights and Jamie had already been in his room with his dinner eaten and his homework done by the time Alex had made it home. And then yesterday it had been, what, five at the latest when he'd left the station? Jamie had already been in his room picking away at his guitar then, too. It wasn't that Jamie was never in early, but he couldn't recall the last time it had been every single day of the week, not even in the worst of winter.
"Well, if you didn't do something to him, then why's he suddenly avoiding everyone?" Caitie demanded after a minute, although her tone was at least marginally less reproachful this time.
"I have not and would not hurt Jamie. Not ever, and you can ask him that yourself if you want. In fact you should ask him that yourself if it's something you're concerned about. But it's not my place to talk about his private business, either, so if you want to know what's wrong, you're going to have to ask him that, too."
"Yeah, well, I would f I could find him and get him to hold still for long enough for me to get the question out," she said, scowl returning. "And if he wasn't just going to answer 'I'm fine' anyway, because that's how he always answers questions like that."
Alex could sympathize entirely with the last because it wasn't as if he'd been able to get honest answer out of Jamie on the subject either. It would be absolutely inappropriate to talk about that with one of Jamie's friends, though—he was still trying to figure out how to talk to the Croms about some of this without violating Jamie's privacy, and in that case they were legitimately supposed to be part of his foster support system—but as to the first...
He opened up his desk drawer, digging around for a minute until he found a pad of post-its and a pen and scribbled down a phone number before offering her the page. "Here. This is for the house phone. If you want to talk to him, try calling. For the record, any of his friends are welcome to call him as long as the hours are reasonable." He hadn't thought about it before, and he didn't have to ask to know that Jamie wouldn't have given anyone to the house number, but there was no reason that his friends shouldn't be able to call when they wanted to talk to him.
"Will he answer?"
"I don't know," he admitted, "but you can leave a message and know he'll get it." He didn't have a problem with Jamie's friends coming over, either, another thing that he hadn't really thought about before, but he'd talk that through with Jamie first. And set some ground rules because while Jamie was a good kid, he was also a sixteen year old boy and Alex already knew that some of his friends were into things that Alex didn't approve of.
She hesitated for a moment and then took the post-it. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Now if you'll excuse me, I do have work to do."
Another moment of hesitation and then she nodded and left his office, heading for the front door, and he sat down again and stared at the screen for a few long minutes before sighing and shutting his computer. It was almost five anyway; he could finish this week's reviews at home tonight. Or anytime before the end of the month, really, although he didn't like to let the backlog get too large.
He wasn't surprised that Jamie's motorcycle was in the garage when he got home, although in this case it was mostly because Fridays had become pizza night unless one of them was working, and that Jamie rarely missed. At least he hoped that that was all it was. Damn it, he was not qualified for this.
He didn't hear any guitar playing when he entered, and he hung his jacket up and put his things away before going to tap on Jamie's door. "Jaim? I'm about ready for dinner, are you getting hungry?"
"I guess," Jamie said, opening his door a few moments later.
It didn't look like he'd been burrowing this time; he was wearing his glasses and there was a magazine open on top of the messy comforter. If Caitie hadn't just shown up at the station, Alex would have been relieved that things seemed to be getting back to normal. Maybe it was still a good sign that things were moving in that direction?
"Is something wrong?" Jamie asked.
He shook his head, waving off the moment of hesitation. "Does a supreme and bread sticks sound good?"
"Can they be garlic bread sticks?"
"We can do that." Alex gestured for Jamie to follow him back into the main room. "How was school?"
Alex didn't have to be looking at him to see the face he made, and he pulled the phone down and turned back to him. "Do you have any homework this weekend?"
"Just my book report for English. Well, that and another stupid science lab write-up."
Alex nodded, dialing in their order quickly before hanging up and turning back to Jamie. "So are you working with your friend Caitie again for this science report? Which is not stupid, by the way, we've talked about that."
Jamie was better about not rolling his eyes at Alex by now, but he still made another face. And then hesitated. "I guess. I mean, yeah, we're lab partners." Another quick twitch of his shoulders. "I don't know, I'll probably just write this one up myself. Maybe tomorrow if things aren't too busy at the station."
Alex considered for a minute and then decided that there was no way to bring any of what Caitie had told him up except directly. "She's worried about you, you know."
"Your friend Caitie. She came down to the station to see me."
Jamie's eyes widened. "She what? But—I didn't—I'm sorry—she shouldn't have—" He moved back quickly, shaking his head.
"Hey, hey, easy," Alex said, holding up his hands. He'd figured that Jamie would be surprised, but he hadn't expected that much of a reaction. "Take it easy. It's okay."
"No, it's not! She shouldn't have bothered you."
"She's worried about you, kiddo. I guess she hasn't seen you around too much this week and when she has you've been quiet." He paused. "Although you might mention to her that if she's going to confront someone she thinks is hurting one of her friends, it's probably not the best idea to go alone."
Jamie's eyes got even wider. "I'm sorry, I don't know why she'd ever think that, you never—"
"Kiddo, it's all right," Alex interrupted, lowering his hands slowly and taking a step back himself. "It might not have been the most well thought out idea I've ever heard of, but I can understand being worried about a friend."
"She still shouldn't have..." He trailed off, shaking his head, but at least he'd stopped trying to back out of the room.
"It wasn't a problem." Not that he wanted to encourage random friends of Jamie's to show up at his workplace on a regular basis, but he could deal with it this once. He sighed. "Look, Jaim, I can understand if you're still unhappy with what happened at the doctor's."
Jamie opened his mouth, clearly about to deny it.
"Let me finish. I'm not saying that it's true, just that I could understand if it was. But while you don't have to talk to her—her or any of your other friends—any more than you have to talk to me, maybe hiding isn't the best idea? For them or for you?" Not that it was great for Alex either, but he'd already tried to talk to Jamie about that last week and it hadn't gone far. Well, he'd thought Jamie was doing better, but clearly he'd missed some stuff there.
Another headshake, this one much quicker denial. "I don't—I'm not hiding. I'm not. I'm fine."
That response wasn't a surprise, even if Alex didn't believe it for a minute, but he nodded anyway. "Okay. But do you think you could try telling her that? She has our phone number now, and I don't get the impression that she's the kind of person who just lets things go."
That seemed to bring Jamie up short for a moment as he choked. "No, letting things go is definitely not Caitie's style. But how did she get our phone number?"
"I gave it to her. You're allowed to give it to people too, you know. This is your home; it's okay if your friends want to call."
"But..." He trailed off, focusing on the floor. "What if it's annoying?"
"Kiddo, on the list of things that might be annoying, your friends calling to chat at reasonable hours isn't something I'm going to worry about. And since you don't have a phone of your own there's no reason they shouldn't use the house number. Now, if they start calling you at unreasonable hours or you're on the phone half the night we'll have to have a talk, but I don't think we need to borrow that trouble just yet."
"We're not girls," Jamie said, looking up again and making a face. "We don't talk that much." He paused. "Well, Caitie's a girl, I guess. And Brianne."
Alex felt his lips twitch. Jamie would turn seventeen towards the end of this coming summer, but at the same time it was sometimes obvious that he was a young sixteen. "All right, then. But if she doesn't call tonight, can you promise you give her a call before your shift tomorrow and try talking to her? Or go see her if you don't have her phone number? At the very least she has a right to contribute to her own science report."
"I promise she won't care if I do the science report by my own."
He met Alex's eyes for a minute and then heaved a sigh. "Fine."
"Thank you." Given what he'd seen of her Alex strongly suspected that Caitie would be calling tonight, but if she didn't he was willing to believe that Jamie would keep his word. And granted that he still didn't t think there was any chance that Jamie would say anything beyond 'I'm fine' with regards to how he was feeling, but at least it was something. "Come on, come help me pick out a movie before the pizza gets here."
"No boring documentaries about old buildings in France or wherever," Jamie said immediately.
"Well, I'm not in the mood to watch people trying to kill flying sharks with chainsaws this week, so we're going to have to find a compromise."