Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

"Therapeutic Policy"

Baltimore, MD, June 2008

As long as he's not on a feed, Chaz has permission to get out of bed. Therapeutic policy doesn't hold with keeping patients bedbound anymore unless it's medically necessary. Use it or lose it. Balance, muscle tone, motor control: it's easier to keep them than to get them back, once they atrophy.

Chaz is grateful. Even when he's shuffling to the bathroom one painful step at a time, dragging the IV cart, pausing to rest between steps, biting his lower lip in grim determination. He's not quite out of his mind on the pain medication. Not nearly as out of his mind as he'd like to be, anyway, when every incautious reach makes his eyes sting and his breath shorten. The sutured muscles of his back have knotted, armored around the injuries, and he moves as if somebody had drilled holes in his scapulae and wired them together across his spine.

It's okay, though, because he's allowed to walk to the bathroom.

The bathroom is more than three steps from his bed. Eight feet, a huge terrifying arc of freedom. And nothing at all to stop him from going there any time he wants. When he's done, maybe he'll even go sit in the chair by the window. If he can make it that far. It only costs a handful of calories.

He can spare that many. The feeding pump beside his bed and the prickle of paper and adhesive on his nose and cheek have already become familiar.

Amazing, what a pleasure the absence of thirst is. And most people never even realize it. Someday, he thinks, he'll be able to appreciate what a pleasure the absence of pain is, too.

Today is not that day.

He avoids catching his reflection in the mirror by the door and shuts himself into the bathroom. He's grateful hospital scrubs don't require managing a zipper. With his right wrist and thumb in a cast--not restrained by a cast; he thinks around that idea, and the sensation of pressure on his wrist--and his shoulders cramped into a hunch, it would be nearly impossible. At least, by the color of his urine, he's adequately hydrated.

The mirror over the bathroom sink is harder to avoid. He opens the bathroom door before he washes his hands--or as much of them as he can, around the cast--because he doesn't like being in the tiny room, unable to sense what might be coming up behind him. He keeps his eyes on the faucet. When he's done, he steadies himself on the edge of the sink, careful to keep his weight on the left side. He'll rest here, just a minute, and then he'll walk to the chair by the window. A curly-edged paperback lies on the seat, half-finished, some ridiculous cozy mystery Reyes brought and forgot. That Reyes reads books about cats solving murders is not as amusing as it should be.

He wonders if Reyes tried to get the mirrors pulled out of his hospital room.

Chaz lifts his chin and looks himself in the eyes. Just the eyes for now: bloodshot, but they haven't changed. Still his own eyes, right one brighter than the left, lightened by radial streaks. The rest, however--

His tan has faded; he looks more greenish than sienna. The patch of paper tape stands out due to brightness rather than pallor. Lank hair falls across his forehead; he badly wants a shower he's not permitted. His cheekbones still stare through taut skin, but the hollows under his eyes might be starting to fill in a little. Slowly, curiously, he raises the edge of the blue hospital tunic and touches his ribs. If he were a rock face, they'd be a highway.

He looks up again. Still there, in the mirror. But only for as long as he stands here. As soon as he turns away, the mirror will forget him. He'll be erased, as if he had never been. Suicide would be easy. All he'd have to do is slam a few neurons, time it between feedings.

Something in his life ought to be easy. Just this once.

No chance of becoming the monster then. Just failure to thrive, like you might expect of any abandoned baby.

He could just look in the mirror and efface himself. Erase himself. Be nothing.

Before his eyes, he fades into translucency. A shadow in the mirror.

It feels good.

Until he spots a flicker of motion in the glass, a swirl of red, a flutter. Beautiful red wings, baby boy. Chaz gags around the NG tube, turns too fast, staggers, pulling the mirrors around him.

No wings. Not there. Not real. He's overbalanced because he's weak and injured and tethered to an IV stand, not because enormous pinions drag his shoulders down. And the shimmer of red--

It's a woman in a scarlet cardigan and neat black skirt, leaning hesitantly in the door. She's fiftyish, round-faced, plump, vital, with a buttery brown complexion and gleaming gray-shot black hair that suggest Indian or Pakistani ancestry. "Doctor Villette?"

She's looking right at him when she says it, but her eyes sweep past, glancing off as if from ice. Activate cloaking device, captain.

"Hello?" he says, dragging the IV stand forward. He tries to straighten up, take confident steps. It doesn't work. His stomach cramps brutally from the HIV prophylaxis. His back won't unkink.

The woman squeaks when she hears his voice, startles and jumps into the room.

"Sorry," he says. I was invisible.

A wave of dizziness threatens to capsize him. He steadies himself against the IV stand, and the next thing he knows she's behind him with the plastic visitor's chair.

Gratefully, he sinks down, rests his elbow on his knee and his forehead on his hand. "Low blood sugar," he says. "Nearly time for baby's two o'clock feeding."

"Yes," she says. "That's why I'm here."

She has a sheaf of paper tucked under one arm, where she must have stuffed it when she grabbed the chair. She finds the other chair, drags it over, and sits down beside him. "Are you okay to talk? Do you need a minute? Should I help you back to bed?"

He waves her off. "Excuse me," he says, a little dizzied by her energy. "Who are you?"

"Oh!" She sits upright. "Dr. Srinivasan. I specialize in metabolic disorders. Which makes you a bit outside my specialty, because your metabolism doesn't seem in the slightest disordered. Actually, it's admirably adapted to doing what it needs to do to support your brain function--"

"You're the guy," he says, the pattern coming clear in his head. Despite himself, he likes her--the full-steam-ahead, the clever use of language. The not being at all like a doctor. "The nutritionist guy. Reyes' friend."

When she smiles, both cheeks dimple. "That's me."

He would sit back, in relief, if his back didn't protest. "So you know about--"

"Your uncommon nutritional requirements? Yes. I'm joining your care team. We're going to work on getting you a more tailored diet. I have printouts of your food journal--" She holds up the sheaf of paper, watching his expression, and hastens to add, "Agents Worth and Gates provided them for me. They also made me swear fifteen different ways that I wouldn't tell anyone, even Stephen, about it. They hold you in very high regard, Dr. Villette."

"Chaz," he says.

"Amrita," she replies, and holds out her left hand to shake, mindful of his cast or lazy about the papers in her right one. He scrubs sweat from his palm before he accepts the clasp. Her hand is small and warm and dry, her fingernails plain and immaculate. "Stephen speaks highly of you."

Chaz finds himself thinking about the warmth in her tone as she says Stephen, and decides not to pursue that line of speculation. Don't profile the boss. Don't profile the doctor. Don't profile the boss's potential relationship with the doctor....

In his head, Brady says, mockingly, Nobody likes to think of their father having sex. If she were a profiler, and not a nutritionist, there's no way he could hide the way his fingers wanted to curl into his suddenly-cold palms.

As soon as Dr. Srinivasan is out of the room, he's going to have to call Hafidha and tell her that his new nutritionist is Reyes' girlfriend. Or ex-girlfriend. Just possibly.

It hurts his head.

She looks at the papers; she's covered them with tiny neat notes in purple ink. "It looks like you've been maintaining on five and a half thousand calories a day, roughly. Are these scrupulous?"

"Tolerably," he says. She scoots closer, and he leans over her shoulder to read her notes.

"And you started supplementing in October."

"I did. It seems to help."

"Good," she answers. "We'll do that again. Really--" she rattles the paper for emphasis, "--you've been doing extremely well, in a very difficult situation. What concerns me now is that weight loss over the term of your captivity seems to be in excess of these demands--"

"I wasn't actually 175," he says. "I lied to the computer to get it to nudge up the caloric requirement."

"Okay," she says. "So, 160 or so?"

He nods. "Or so."

She looks him over critically. "Your last weigh-in was 58.5 kilograms, so... 129 pounds. That's after two days in the hospital. And water weight gain. You were severely dehydrated."

He nods. He knows.

She continues, "So, if we're conservative about the water weight, call it 25 pounds of fat and muscle tissue lost over the course of a week. 3500 calories is a pound. 25 times 3500 is 87,000 calories. 87,000 calories divided by seven is 12,500 calories a day." She does the math in her head, on the fly. Even as she's painting him into an inescapable corner, he continues to like her. "That's two and a half times your usual requirement, Chaz. And that's what almost killed you."

Plainspoken, blunt, turning to watch his face as she speaks.

If Reyes trusts her, Chaz can too. After all, it's not like it's illegal to be a freak. "Do you know about slamming?"

"You mean anomalous neural activity?"

"Yes," he says. "We call it slamming. Slamming neurons. I...did it a lot."

"Wow," she says. She looks at her charts again, looks between them and him. "Wow. Sorry, it's one thing to know it, and another to see it in the flesh? Arctic explorers and channel swimmers are only supposed to burn around 13,000 calories a day. This is... "

"Sorry," he says. She's still staring at him steadily, eyes bright and intent. He forces himself not to glance down.

"No," she says. "But I think what I said about your metabolism, earlier, was insufficiently impressed. Your body is an amazing machine."

His hands are so cold, but he doesn't dare rub them on his scrubs to warm them. She knows. She knows I converted, which means Reyes knows, which means they know I hid it--

He breathes deep, makes his fingers relax on his knees, and lies. "It was sustained activity," he says. "Lack of sleep. Constant slamming. Even normally, just at work, I can burn two pounds in a day, and that's with pushing seven thousand calories."

The smile doesn't feel forced. He can't tell how it looks.

Whether she believes him or not, she drops her gaze to the notes. "Amazing machine," she repeats. "And I think I can help you give it the fuel it needs to run optimally," she says, and pats his knee. "And Dr. Villette? Despite my friendship with your superior officer, I want you to understand that anything we discuss will be held in the strictest confidence."

He's not sure--he doesn't know her well enough yet--to be sure if she's letting him know she'll cover for his lie, or if she believed it.

She continues, "Now, our first priority is weight gain, of course, so we're going to continue on the NG feeds for now. But not for too much longer, and when you come off them, we're going to drive food services crazy, you and me...."