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Keep Your Eye on the Horizon

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Hyperfocused, hypercritical, hyperorganized… Tammy’s heard the words float by on many a performance evaluation, sometimes as praise, sometimes as a way to kick her overachieving ass in line. Personally, she considers them her greatest assets, and it looks like the Deputy Director agrees, seeing as he put her on this case to begin with. Which makes it the height of irony when, ten minutes into the two-hour drive to their crime scene, she realizes she’s all out of dramamine.

Granted, she’s got an excuse. Arrived in Philly straight out of Quantico, she hasn’t been out in the field yet except on short jaunts. Twenty minutes in a moving car is just about her limit before her stomach really starts to do flip-flops, so it’s been a while since she needed the precaution. And she was excited for this case, which usually helps make her sharper, except when it crosses the line into nervousness.

So here she is, in the back of an official Bureau car, sleek and leather-clad but far too hot in this weather. And in the passenger seat, part of the reason for her nerves: Special Agent Albert Rosenfield, right-hand man of Gordon Cole and pretty much all Tammy aspires to be professionally, down to the take-no-shit attitude. And whom she bets was picked by Cole to keep an eye on her, so it wouldn’t come across as very professional if she had to ask to stop the car just to get her churning gut under control.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Rosenfield says, almost as if he’s reading her mind. He’s craning his neck to scowl at her in the vanity mirror - not an aggressive scowl, but not an inviting one either. “Especially for an agent who can’t shut up about her cases even during after-work drinks.”

They say that about her? Tammy gulps when the car hits a rough patch of road, tries to blend it into an appropriately aloof look. It’s true, of course, to the mixed amusement and exasperation of most other agents she knows, nearly all of whom have a whole different view of late-night entertainment than she does. But how it found its way to Rosenfield’s ears is anybody’s guess. Great, so now she’s got a reputation to uphold… And just when the thought of opening her mouth for any longer than she has to is starting to seem like an increasingly bad call.

“I was… thinking,” she mutters, relieved when they hit an intersection and his eyes drift away from the mirror. She uses those few seconds to shift position and inconspicuously cross an arm in front of her. She can hold out, for now, but their driver’s propensity for sudden accelerations isn’t doing her stomach any favors; she can already feel the cold sweat beading in her neck, the first telltale sign that the point of no return is a lot closer than she’d like. If she could just distract herself, focus on something other than the rolling landscape…  even being grilled by an old hand, if that’s what it takes.

“Thinking?” Rosenfield grunts. His eyes flick to the mirror again, his eyebrows rising high enough to cross half the considerable distance to his hairline. “You’re fresh out of preschool from where I’m standing, Preston. And at this point the Bureau doesn’t pay you nearly enough to think, so you’d be a fool to want to. Observe and learn, that’s what you’re here for. Got that?”

Tammy blinks. She may only know this man by reputation, but as far as she heard, the thing he has no patience for is people refusing to use their brains. This sounds like the exact opposite demand, and the shock of it makes her forget her predicament for long enough to return his scowl. “You’re saying observation and reflection should be mutually exclusive?” she blurts. “But… that’s not what we were taught. And it’s not what I believe either; if the Bureau wants me to stop thinking critically, they better resign themselves to lobotomizing me first!” It’s out before she knows it, and the silence slamming down on the heels of that proclamation is heavy enough she imagines it could be felt across the state.

She isn’t sure what kind of reaction she was braced for. Some reaction, in any case, and the fact that none is forthcoming does more to unsettle her than any blistering repartee ever could. A couple of seconds pass, Agent Rosenfield’s gaze locked on hers but betraying nothing. Then he grumbles, “Huh,” and takes to looking out through the windshield again.

Did she just fuck up? If so, she wouldn't expect him to be mincing words about it, but maybe the things she heard about him - how he’s harsh but fair, valuing honesty above all else - simply aren’t true anymore. Maybe at some point, he just stopped caring. Either way, this feels like the end of their conversation, which means she’s on her own again, with even more reason to feel jittery than before. Either she fucked up or she didn’t; either a person she admired from afar is turning out to be a massive disappointment or he’s not. Whatever's the case, there's nothing she can do about it except suck it up for now.

She should ask to stop the car. The thought sinks its barbs into her brain and refuses to let go again, but she can’t bring herself to get her vocal chords to work. They’re on the freeway now, their driver weaving back and forth from one lane to the other, her stomach crawling up into her mouth with every swerve. This is bad, bad, bad. The last time she felt like this was during takeoff on a flight to Chicago, where she ended up needing not one air sickness bag but two: her own, and that of the rambling old lady next to her. But of course she doesn’t have that luxury now.

Ask to stop the car, she thinks again, but her throat closes up and she’s getting light-headed and her hands are shaky and clammy as they curl around her waist. How can she ask anything when she’s just been shut out with such finality? How can she even trust…

“Preston?” That’s Rosenfield again, sounding less than neutral this time, although she can’t tell if he’s irritated or concerned or both. “You good back there?” There’s a long pause in which Tammy tries to answer - something tells her she’s not looking good at all - but finds that she can’t or she’ll blow chunks right now. “Agent Preston?” Vaguely, she’s aware of Rosenfield craning his head to look at her, alarm written all over his face. “Tammy? C’mon, kid, talk to me.” More silence, then, “Pull over, now,” barked at the driver in a tone that brooks no argument, and the next thing Tammy knows, they’re swerving again, swinging into the emergency lane with brakes practically screeching, and she claps her hand over her mouth when her stomach heaves. Somehow she makes it until the car’s stopped, but she still can’t bring herself to move, and she can taste bile at the back of her throat as she swallows frantically. From what sounds like very far away, she hears the passenger door open, then, a few seconds after that, her own…  And there she goes, turning her head just in time to avoid the car upholstery, but not Rosenfield himself, stepping straight into the line of fire just as she loses what feels like lunch, breakfast and last night’s dinner all at the same time.

“Oh, for crying out…” It’s not a curse, or an exclamation. In fact it sounds more resigned than anything, and Tammy wonders at that for a few befuddled moments before someone grabs her shoulders and hauls her out of the car. She flops down on her knees at the edge of the road, gasping, trying to work up the energy to feel ashamed. Then her stomach twists again and she’s coughing into the grass, the hands redoubling their grip on her shoulders, presumably to keep her from toppling over into her own mess. “Easy does it, Preston.” A lock of hair comes spilling down from behind her back,  but one of those hands catches it and tucks it behind her ear in a quick, efficient gesture. Agent Rosenfield trained as a doctor, she remembers. Specializing in pathology, but he went through med school just like everyone else holding the title. “There,” he says, as she maneuvers herself into a sitting position. He pats her back, lightly. “You done?”

Tammy nods, still trying to catch her breath. “Yes. I think so. I…”  The embarrassment is setting in for real now, and, oh shit, not only did he see her losing it, but she actually… “Your… your suit...”

“I’ll send you the dry cleaner’s bill, if it makes you feel better.” The hand leaves her back, and he calls towards the driver: “Bill! Can you get some water from the trunk?” Then, to her: “Were you ill before we left? Nothing wrong with a healthy dose of tenacity, but I don’t see the point in trying to muscle your way through an illness if you’re just going to end up puking in the car.”

“I’m not ill,” she mutters, inching away a couple of feet to where she can sit down without ruining her shoes and skirt. “I just… I get carsick.” It comes out a mumble. “I forgot to bring my pills.”

“Carsick.” Rosenfield’s tone is dry as tinder. He sighs - a dragged-out, long-suffering sigh that reminds her a little of her grandpa, back when she was a kid and had just come up with some new and farfetched theory about the government covering up alien abductions. “For Christ’s sake, Preston, you could have said something. Why didn’t you just ask to stop the car?”

Tammy pulls herself up, trying to gather what’s left of her dignity. “You said you wanted me to keep my mouth shut.”

There’s a short, sharp intake of breath, and for a second Tammy thinks, with a weird kind of detachment: Oh, I’ve done it now. There’s no particular shame attached to the thought; she just said what was on her mind, nothing crude or disrespectful, and in an organization dedicated to the pursuit of truth, you’d expect she’d be allowed to… Or at least that’s what she would have expected before today. Then Agent Rosenfield - who was still leaning in behind her - makes a low, exasperated noise and gets up abruptly.

“I never said that.” He’s frowning down at her now, carefully shouldering out of his jacket. “I may have dropped the suggestion, but I never took the words in my mouth. Ears, Preston. All I said was the Bureau didn’t pay you to think. Doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to, or that I don’t still expect you to give it the best you got.” He turns when the driver - was it Bill? - comes up on him from behind, the two of them exchanging a wordless look as Bill reaches to take Rosenfield's vest and hands him a water bottle in return.

“Oh,” Tammy says, then mentally kicks herself for sounding like a pushover. Between the fresh air and her nausea fading, she’s slowly starting to feel like herself again. “I thought…”

“You thought there was no reason not to believe what I said,” Rosenfield finishes for her, dragging his feet on the asphalt. Suddenly he just looks tired: a weary old man in a well-cut suit, floundering along like the rest of them. Then he straightens, his gaze hardening. “Your faith in me is flattering, kid, but flattery will get you nowhere fast. Same with taking too much for granted.” He squints down to inspect the damage to his clothes: the shirt seems salvageable, but the tie looks like a total loss. Another sigh, and then he’s lowering himself on his haunches again, thrusting the water at her like one might a loaded gun. “Here. It’s hot as hell out here, and dehydration is a bitch.” He waits for her to accept the bottle, rinse her mouth and then take a few sips. “Did you really think Gordon Cole would send you on a case with me and not ask me to find out what stuff you’re made of? Grill her good, he told me, so I did. How was I to know you’d interpret it as ‘toss your cookies rather than open your damn mouth’?”

“You were testing me?” Tammy says, wondering if that was apology in his tone or just regular annoyance. But it’s all starting to make sense: the dig at her being too talkative, the uncharacteristic suggestion to stop using her brain, all the tiny details contradicting everything she thought she knew about him. “Shit. I didn’t do well, did I?” She forces herself to meet his eyes; better go down with grace than hang her head in defeat.

Rosenfield shrugs. “You didn’t do terrible either. And there were -” a pointed glance at his ruined tie - “extenuating circumstances, let’s call it. Some of your peers don’t even protest when they’re told to put their brains on standby. Not exactly the mindset we’re looking for.” With a last, resigned look, he starts to unknot his tie. “Right. Time to change shirts. You feeling well enough to get back in the car? We don’t carry meds, but we can stop at a pharmacy if you need them, and there should be some Seltzer water in the back.” Long beat. “Unless you want us to turn around.”

“Hell, no,” she says, scrambling to get to her feet. She finds a weathered hand held out to her, and she takes it more out of surprise than because she really needs the support.

“Agent Preston.” Agent Rosenfield doesn’t relax his grip on her hand, a brief glint of amusement hiding behind those heavy-lidded eyes. “Looks like you came out of this surprisingly unscathed. Not a spot on you. Not even those fancy shoes.” He gives her arm a small tug, like a handshake, and lets go.

Tammy blinks down at her pumps, which, apart from some mud sticking to the heels, look pretty much good to go. “Developed a knack for it, I guess?” she says, feeling sheepish, and then remembers what he said before. “You brought a spare shirt ?”

“Suit, shirt, tie, the works. You’re the new kid and we’re headed for a crime scene. I get thrown up during autopsies, oh… maybe once a year? Retrieving the bodies, probably half that. I know to come prepared.”

“I don’t mind corpses,” Tammy says, navigating towards the car while trying to avoid stepping into her own mess from before. She throws Agent Rosenfield a last, remorseful look across her shoulder. “I have an older sister. She likes horror movies, the gorier the better, and my folks weren’t home much, so…” She shrugs. “It’s just cars that bother me. And buses.” Pause. “And airplanes, when there’s turbulence.”

“Right.” Rosenfield pops open the trunk. “Well, you’re hardly the first agent who has trouble with moving vehicles, so I’m sure you’ll live. I used to work with a man who’d white-knuckle his way through every flight we shared. Refused to take anything for it, too. But he had a cast-iron stomach when it came to everything else. Actually, you remind me a little…” He cuts himself off. Her own hand on the handle of the passenger door, Tammy can’t quite make out his expression, but he’s definitely looking paler than he did before.

“So…” she says, not sure why she’s trying to distract him now, except that there’s a fragility in his bearing that she’d rather not have to watch for too long. “What are you going to tell the Deputy Director?”

“I’ll tell him…” He looks up, and for a second it’s like he’s seeing someone else, occupying the same space as her. Then he shakes it off and cracks a faint grin. “I’ll tell him you left an impression all right. One I won’t soon forget.”

Tammy frowns. “But that's… I’m sure Deputy Director Cole wants the whole story, doesn’t he? Aren’t you gonna tell him that I, um, your suit…?”

“Misdirection.” It might be a trick of the light, but he actually seems to wink at her, then ducks down into the trunk before she can confirm it. “Can't beat the boss at his own game, but I sure as hell can try. Anyway, I’m telling him nothing but the truth. Now, buckle up, Agent Preston - and this time, yell if we need to stop, will you? We got a case to solve, and I’m all out of spare shirts.”

 

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