Masks: Part 16

Jim drove out of the parking lot and glanced beside him. Blair was sitting still, gazing out the window, a small smile on his face. He wasn't scared, or nervous. Jim couldn't remember the last time Blair had been so calm. It must be left over from the trance Dr. Hawthorne had put him in to test the code word. Jim grinned. Maybe Blair should be hypnotized more often.

"That went pretty well, huh, Partner?" Jim asked.

Blair's smile grew a little wider. "Yeah. It did."

"What do you say we go out to eat?"

"You want to celebrate?"

"No, I want to eat. How about that Thai place on Chestnut?"

"Sounds good. But--um--I didn't get to the ATM."

"My treat."

Blair shook his head. "No, man. I feel guilty letting you pay all the time."

"Then next time, you pay. Okay?"

"Okay."

Dinner was good. Blair's calm wore off, but it was replaced by animation. He talked, and ate, and drank countless cups of the smoky jasmine tea he liked so much. Jim was content to listen, contributing the odd word here and there, mostly nodding as Blair's words flowed over him in a familiar, welcome stream. He continued until the check came, and Jim reached for his wallet. Blair abruptly sobered, turning his attention to the white cup in his hand.

"What is it?" Jim asked.

Blair's gaze flicked up to him, and down again. "Jim." He gulped the last of the tea, while Jim waited. "You're not paying for my counseling, are you?"

"No, Sandburg, I'm not."

"Then who is? The Department?"

"No." Might as well tell him. He had a right to know. "The feds."

"Why?"

"It was part of the deal."

"What deal?" Blair demanded. Smoke-blue eyes fixed on him. "Jim, tell me you didn't trade them Ponytail for my therapy."

"Sorry, Partner. That's exactly what we did."

"No." Blair's voice was getting louder, drawing the attention of the other diners. "Dammit, no! He should have gone to prison!"

"Yes, he should have," Jim said quietly. "But the feds wanted him, and there was nothing we could do about it. We could have filed official complaints, but we would have lost. Simon knew that. So he did the best he could: he told the feds he wouldn't make a fuss, if they agreed to pay for all your medical expenses. Plus some compensation for your pain and suffering."

"Compensation?"

"A hundred thousand dollars."

Blair's eyes went wide. "Are you kidding me, man?"

Jim shook his head. "It should show up in your account in a couple of months."

"A hundred thousand...." Blair raised the cup to his lips, realized it was empty, and put it down again. Jim could see the ideas flash through his eyes, thoughts of what he could do with that much money. They stopped suddenly. Blair's face went stony, and he pushed the cup away. "It's not enough."

"Simon did his--"

"That's not what I meant, Jim. I'm grateful for what Simon did, I really am. But it doesn't matter how much it is. It's not enough. It could never be enough."

"I know."

They left the restaurant and went home. Blair didn't say another word, and Jim didn't feel much like talking either. He should have lied, told Blair the Department was paying for his therapy. The kid would never have known the difference. But he didn't like lying. And when the money showed up in his account, Blair would have known it didn't come from the Cascade Police Department.

Damn. Maybe he should've lied anyway. If he had, Blair's good mood might have lasted until he went to bed. If the kid could just get one peaceful night's sleep--just one--maybe he'd wake up in the morning a little less scared of the world, a little more sure of his place in it. And if he got one, maybe he could get another one, and another one, until the nightmares stopped being inevitable. Maybe then, Blair would stop looking so drawn, and pale, and small. Maybe he'd stop flinching, and stammering. Maybe he'd stop being afraid. Just one night. God, was that too much to ask?

Jim parked the truck, and peered up at the loft's windows. The shades were up, and light shone out through the glass.

"Did you leave a light on?"

Blair glanced up. "Yeah. Why, is something wrong?"

"Just checking."

Blair led the way up the stairs and opened the door. He stepped inside, and stopped. His heart slammed in his chest, and his breathing went ragged, his head shaking slowly.

"Oh... No," he breathed. "Oh, Jim."

Jim drew his gun, and pushed the door wide, gazing past Blair into the loft. The apartment had been ransacked. Not destroyed: very little of what he could see had been broken, or torn apart. But furniture had been overturned, pillows, rugs, and books scattered everywhere. Pots and pans littered the kitchen, and all the cabinets hung open, as well as the oven and refrigerator.

Without thinking, Jim grabbed Blair's shoulder and shoved him out into the hall. Blair stiffened under his hand, and made a strangled sound in his throat, but Jim couldn't worry about that now; his partner's safety was his first concern. He held a finger to his lips, warning Blair to silence, and turned up his hearing. He heard his own heartbeat, immediately tuned it out. Then Blair's, still rapid with fear, his lungs struggling to draw in air. Tuning that out was harder, but he managed. He remembered something Blair had taught him, and piggy-backed his hearing on his sight, sending it into the loft in search of intruders. Nothing. No other heartbeat, no sound of another's breath. Whoever had done this was gone.

Holstering his gun, Jim turned to Blair. "It's okay. Come on in."

Blair's eyes darted past him. "Are you sure?"

"Trust me, Partner. They're gone."

Blair edged into the apartment, looking everywhere and nowhere, trying not to see the mess. Jim flipped open his cell phone, punching in Simon's number. Blair moved past him, heading slowly toward his room.

"Don't touch anything," Jim called after him.

If Blair heard, he didn't react. Jim went after him.

"Banks."

"Simon, it's Jim. Somebody trashed the loft."

"Anything missing?"

"Dunno yet."

"I'll send a forensics team over."

"Thanks."

He hung up. Jim put the phone back in his pocket, and followed Blair into his room. It had been tossed, too, though to Jim's eyes it didn't look much worse than usual. The closet had been emptied, its contents thrown onto the floor. Books and papers were everywhere. Blair's laptop was half-buried under blankets that had been ripped from the bed, but it looked to be intact. The bed had been pulled away from the wall, as had all the other furniture, and the wall-hanging had been torn down. Artifacts covered the mattress: some, Jim had never seen before; the others had been hung on the walls, or set on Blair's desk or nightstand. None had been damaged. It didn't look like anything was missing, but Blair was staring and pale, hugging himself as though someone had kicked him in the gut. Oh no.

"Blair, where did you put the mask?"

Blair didn't answer, didn't even acknowledge him. Jim raised his voice.

"Blair! The mask. Where did you put it?"

Blair started, and looked away from the wreck of his room, his eyes finding Jim. "In the hamper."

"What?"

"You know, Jim, the laundry hamper. Where we put the dirty clothes."

"Yeah, I know," Jim said, recovering. "I'm just surprised that you do."

Jim strode down the hall to the bathroom and lifted the lid of the hamper. He pushed aside a couple of damp towels and a pair of Blair's argyle socks before he found the box and pulled it out. The mask was inside, safe and protected. Jim brought it back to show Blair.

"What made you put it in there?"

Blair shrugged. "I just thought I should hide it."

"Well, it's a good thing you did, Partner."

"You think that's what he was after?"

"It's a good bet."

Two hours later, forensics was done and on their way out the door. Jim had been over the entire loft, but had found nothing. Whoever had broken in had left no trace behind, not a single hair, thread, fingerprint, or bit of revealing dirt. Nothing was missing. Thanks to Blair, they hadn't found what they came for.

Jim closed and chained the door, then picked up the mug of chamomile tea he had brewed and carried it to his partner. Shooed out of the kitchen, dining area, and even his own room, Blair had taken refuge on the stairs leading to Jim's room. He sat with arms around drawn-up knees, shivering a little, his leather jacket still on. Jim handed him the mug, and he accepted it gratefully, blowing on the tea to cool it before taking his first sip.

"Chamomile?" he said. "Oh, man, that's no good, it'll put me to sleep."

"That's the idea," Jim said.

Blair shook his head. "I can't, Jim. I've got midterms to grade."

"Sandburg, it's already after midnight. You need to get some sleep."

"I don't have time," Blair insisted. "Anyway, I don't want to sleep."

"Blair, it's okay. They're gone. They won't be back." Not tonight, anyway.

"I know, man, but--"

"What? Come on, Blair, you can tell me. You can tell me anything, remember?"

Blair shook his head. "It's stupid."

"Probably. But suppose you tell me anyway."

Blair rolled his eyes, then looked down at the mug in his hand. It took him a while, but he got it out, blushing furiously. "He was in my room, Jim. He--touched my stuff. I don't--I don't think I can sleep in there tonight."

Great. Now what? "There aren't a whole lot of choices, Blair." He couldn't suggest the couch. Blair wouldn't go near the living room. But the kid needed sleep. "How about we trade, Partner? You sleep in my room, and I'll sleep in yours."

Blair turned his head to look up the stairs, thinking about it. His gaze returned to Jim. "I can't ask you to do that."

"You're not. It was my idea. Take it or leave it, Sandburg."

Blair hesitated. "You really don't mind?"

"It's only for one night." Jim assumed his sternest expression. "There's just one condition."

"What's that?"

"If I'm going to sleep in your room, you can't be out here grading tests. You go to bed now, got that?"

Meekly. "Okay, Jim." Blair stood and started up the stairs, carrying the mug of tea with him. He paused at the top, leaning over the railing. "Thanks, Jim. Good night."

"Good night, kid." Softly. "Have transcendent dreams."





Blair floated between sleep and waking, and thought he could stay there forever. He felt so good, so utterly relaxed and at ease. Better than he'd felt in a long time. He shifted position slightly, and settled back onto the pillow without opening his eyes. Sunlight bathed his face and one arm with delicious warmth, and he luxuriated in the sensation. He was never getting up. Never. Not as long as the sun--

The sun! Blair bolted upright, his heart slamming so hard that it hurt. There was no morning sun in his room. God, where was he? Where was--

Blair fell back again, covering his face with his hands. Idiot. He was in Jim's room, Jim's bed, and Jim was downstairs in his. God, he'd acted like a child last night. Like a little boy who had to sleep in Daddy's bed so the bogeyman wouldn't get him. Except that he'd kicked Jim out of his bed and taken it over himself. God, he was such a wuss!

He couldn't believe Jim had let him do this. His father never had. He had a still-vivid memory of being sent back to his own bed, alone, when he'd come crying to his parents after a nightmare. His mother had wanted to let him stay, but she'd never been much good at standing up to her husband, and Benjamin Sandburg wouldn't weaken his son by coddling him, no. He'd been two years old, and he remembered.

Not that he'd never slept in his parents' bed. When his father was away on business, his mother had sometimes let him stay with her, and made him swear not to tell his father. And he hadn't. Even at that age, he'd known there were things you didn't say to Benjamin Sandburg. He'd never forgotten. But one day, he had reached the point where he didn't care. And found himself on the street, forever banned from his father's house. He hadn't seen his parents since that day.

He'd used to wonder what his life would be like if he'd done as his father wanted and given up his study of Sentinels. He didn't do that anymore. If he'd switched to some other topic, he would never have met Jim, and that was something he didn't want to think about. What would Jim have done if Blair hadn't been there to tell him what he was, to guide him in the use of his abilities? Would he have gone crazy? Or would he have suppressed the abilities, as he had when he came back from Peru? Jim had needed help, and Blair had been there, at exactly the right time. He'd always thought it was just an incredible coincidence, but what if it wasn't? What if he'd been meant to be there for Jim, if it was fate? What if he'd never really had any choice in his field of study? What if his whole life had been preparing him to be Jim Ellison's Guide?

That was a scary train of thought. If it was true, then maybe his break with his father had been predestined. Maybe whoever was orchestrating this had wanted him alone, so he'd attach himself to Jim, latch onto him in place of the family he'd lost. The family he'd never really had, if he was being honest. What about Jim? Was it the same for him? His marriage to Carolyn had fallen apart in less than a year, leaving him alone, isolated. Would Jim be alone forever? Would he? If he got serious about a woman, would he get his heart broken every time? Would Jim ever trust a woman enough to tell her about his Sentinel abilities? Did Sentinels have families? What about their partners? He was definitely going to have to look into this.

"Sandburg, you planning on getting up today?" Jim called from downstairs. That sounded weird.

"I'm awake," Blair answered.

"That's not what I asked you," Jim said.

"Okay, I'm up then."

"No, you're not."

No, he wasn't. And he didn't want to be. Jim's bed was comfortable. It was at least twice as wide as his own, and there were no sharp-cornered books lying in wait to jab him when he moved. He stretched, and wriggled down beneath the covers so that the comforter reached his chin. His feet were nowhere near the end of the bed. Jim's feet must have hung off the end of his bed. Blair grinned, and closed his eyes. He didn't want to move. He felt himself drifting, and knew he could be asleep again in seconds. He'd forgotten what it was like to be so relaxed. A few more minutes couldn't hurt...

He opened his eyes to see Jim stacking folded shirts on a shelf. The older man was dressed, shaved, and ready to go. Uh-oh. Blair brushed a curl out of his face, and Jim glanced his way.

"I'm up," Blair said.

"That's what you said two hours ago."

What? Blair turned over to squint at the clock on Jim's nightstand: 9:15. Shit. He threw the covers back, and stumbled out of the bed, catching himself on the railing before he went over. Jim started toward him.

"Careful, Partner."

"I'm okay, man. Why didn't you get me up?"

Jim laughed. "I know when to quit. Watch the stairs, this isn't your room, remember?"

"Yes, Mom."

Jim didn't bother to answer. Certain that his toes would freeze off before he reached the bottom, Blair took the stairs at a near-run and hurried toward his room. He hesitated at the door, remembering how it had looked last night, all his things flung everywhere, even his bed, torn apart and handled by whoever had broken in. He hadn't thought of the mask at all. He'd been convinced that--

But it wasn't. The intruder had wanted the mask, that was all. And he hadn't found it, because Blair had hidden it. Jim had been pleased. It was about time he'd done something right. Now if only he could keep it up. He'd start by not being afraid to go into his own bedroom.

Blair opened the door, expecting the mess from last night. His furniture was back in place. The laptop sat on his desk, along with three stacks of books, a bunch of notebooks, a collection of pens, and artifacts set out in neat rows. The hanging was back on the wall, his clothes were put away, the bed--God, the bed was made. Jim had cleaned up. Blair scowled at himself. Idiot. Of course Jim had cleaned up, how else could he have slept in here? But this went way beyond what he'd had to do. This went way beyond anything Blair had ever done. How was he ever going to find anything?

Oh, that's nice. Be an ingrate, Sandburg. Why don't you go yell at Jim for daring to put your stuff into some kind of order? Okay, so it's not your kind of order. Jim did you a huge favor here, and you're going to thank him for it. After you've had your shower.

Blair moved into the room, looking around. God, even the dirty clothes he'd been meaning to throw in the hamper were gone. Had Jim done his laundry, too? Did that mean he'd-- There was a gray square on the end of the bed: Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt, neatly folded. Jim had left it for him. Blair felt himself blushing. He should wash the sweatshirt and give it back to Jim. But he knew he wouldn't. Not yet.

Half an hour later, they left the loft. Blair had managed to find a navy blue sweater, jeans, and a clean pair of socks. He carried the box of midterms, and Jim carried Wainwright's mask, still in its protective box. A travel-mug of coffee and a bagel balanced on top of the bluebooks; Jim had already eaten his breakfast. They loaded the boxes into the back seat of the truck. Blair set the mug in the cupholder, grabbed the bagel, and jumped up into the passenger seat. Jim started the truck, and pulled out of the parking lot.

"Damn," Blair murmured.

Jim heard, of course. "Forget something?"

"Sort of. I left my notes for the paper I'm writing in my office. I'll have to go pick them up later."

"We can go now."

"No, man, we're already late."

"Don't worry about it."

Blair shook his head, but didn't argue. Jim wouldn't listen anyway. He just hoped Jim wouldn't get into trouble for this. It was all right for him to wander in and out of the station when he felt like it, he was just an observer. But Jim was a cop, and Simon liked his people to show up on time. Well, if Simon yelled, he'd take the responsibility. Or he'd try to, anyway. Jim operated on the belief that he was entirely responsible for anything either of them did that was even remotely connected to police work. Technically, he was, but Blair hated the idea that something he'd done--some stupid mistake he'd made--could put Jim's job in jeopardy. Not to mention his life.

Jim's voice broke his thoughts. "Earth to Sandburg."

"Huh?"

Jim smiled. "I said, how'd you sleep last night?"

"Oh. Good. At least, I think so. I didn't walk or anything, did I?"

"No. You stayed put."

"Great. Thanks for letting me--um--trade. Did you sleep okay?"

"Fine." Jim glanced at him, then turned his attention back to the road. "So, no nightmares?"

"No, I--" No nightmares. None. "Jim, this is great!"

"It's about time."

"No, man, you don't get it. I slept in your bed, and I didn't have any nightmares!"

"I get it, Sandburg."

"No, you don't, Jim. This means that you're definitely not the cause of the nightmares. If you were, then me sleeping in your bed would have made them worse. I'd have been screaming all night. I knew it couldn't be you, man, I knew it! And this proves it."

Jim smiled again. "Well, good."

"Good? Is that all you can say?"

Dryly. "I'd jump up and down and do a dance, Sandburg, but it's a little awkward right now. Though you seem to be doing okay."

"Sorry, man."

"Don't be. Just don't spill coffee in my truck."

When they reached Rainier, Jim parked the truck in front of Hargrove Hall and Blair jumped out, racing up to the second floor to retrieve his notes. He knew exactly where he'd left them. All he had to do was grab them and run out again, and hope he didn't run into any students with questions about their midterms. After Tuesday's fiasco, he'd never understand how he'd found the courage to show up for yesterday's class, but he'd done it. Though a few of the students had been a little edgy--especially Joshua, but he couldn't blame the poor guy--most had been pretty cool about the whole thing. Anyone would have thought teachers freaked out in front of their classes all the time. Their attitude had made it a lot easier for him. By the time class was over, he'd almost managed to relax, and he was actually looking forward to teaching next Tuesday. Provided he got all the midterms graded.

Blair walked into his office, and stopped dead. No. Oh no, not here, too. God--

A hand clamped over Blair's mouth, jerked him back against a hard body. He fought, trying to pry the hand from his mouth, but his assailant was bigger, stronger, and he couldn't get free. Dragged behind the door, he tried to bite the hand over his mouth, but couldn't work his jaws apart. Cold metal touched his temple, and he stopped struggling. He didn't have to see it to know it was a gun. The door closed. A familiar voice spoke in his ear.

"Stay real quiet, genius, or I'll have to blow your head off. And that wouldn't be good for either of us, would it?"

Blair shook his head. The hand left his mouth, and an arm slid across his throat, tightening just enough to let him know it wouldn't be smart to move. Ponytail's arm snaked around his neck, lifting him off his feet, cutting off his breath. No. No! Don't think about that. This isn't Ponytail, it isn't! Think of a way to let Jim know what's happening. There has to be a way.

"Where is it?" the voice demanded.

Stall, Blair. Maybe if he got tired of waiting, Jim would come up here after him. "Where's what?"

The arm tightened, and the gun jabbed his temple. "Don't jerk me around, genius. Where's the mask?"

In the truck, with Jim. "It's at the police station."

"Bullshit!" The hammer cocked. "You've got five seconds."

Oh God, oh God, Jim, come up here, please! "I swear, man! That's where it is. The mask's worth fifty thousand dollars, you think the cops would just let me take it home?"

The pressure of the gun eased slightly. "You'd better be telling the truth, genius."

"I swear! Come on, man, you know it's the truth."

"I know you're shit-scared."

The arm whipped away from his throat and shoved him forward. A foot tripped him, and he fell, sprawling on his stomach. The hand gripped the collar of his jacket, and the gun touched the back of his head. Oh God, he was going to die. Jim!

"Listen, genius. Tell your boyfriend Ellison you can't work on this case anymore. Tell him you don't know anything else, or you're not interested. Hell, tell him you're too scared, he'll believe that."

"I can't--"

"Do it!" The gun dug into his skull, forcing Blair's head to the floor. "Or next time, I'll use this."

The gun and the hand were gone, and the voice spoke from above him. "You know the drill, genius. Count to fifty before you move."

The door opened and closed. Blair lay on the floor, unable to move. He started to shake, and his stomach twisted. He swallowed rapidly, sucking in deep breaths, refusing to be sick. Not this time. Get up, Sandburg! Go after the guy, yell for Jim, do something! Move!

"Damn, damn, dammit, dammit, dammit!"

 

End Part 16

Part 17