Masks: Part 19

"Hey, Jim, you home?" he called, shutting the door.

No answer. He tossed his keys into the basket, saw Jim's already there, and his jacket hung neatly on its hook. He hung his own jacket next to it.

"Jim? Come on, man, I know you can hear me."

Nothing. He moved past the kitchen counter. There was something on the floor in the living room, but in the dim light, he couldn't make it out.

"Jim?"

Something was wrong. Something was wrong. His stomach twisted, and a voice in his head screamed at him to get out, but his legs carried him forward, toward the living room and the dark object on the floor. He didn't want to see. He didn't want to--

"Oh God. Oh, God, no."

Jim. It was Jim, lying motionless on the floor, his eyes open, a hole in his forehead, the back of his head a mass of brains and blood and shards of bone.

"No." He bent down, reaching a hand toward the still form. It couldn't be real. "No."

An arm snaked around his throat, jerked him up and off his feet. A gun touched the side of his head, and a voice he knew said,

"I told you what would happen if you lied to me, genius. I said I'd be back. Your cop friend got in the way. It's your fault he's dead."

"No!"

He couldn't breathe. The arm lowered, setting him back on his feet, but didn't ease the pressure. He choked, and the voice spoke in his ear, but it was a different voice now, a deeper, harsher voice.

"You shouldn't have lied to me, Chief. You shouldn't have shot me."

He was ice. Body, mind, heart. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. Ponytail's tongue touched his ear, burning. Fire engulfed his body, freeing his limbs from the ice, and he fought, but Ponytail laughed and threw him to the floor. He tried to get up. Ponytail dropped to his knees beside him and seized his neck, pushing his head back down, grinding his cheek into the floor, into the blood. Jim's blood.

"Why'd you shoot me, Chief? That was a stupid move. You could have been my Guide. Now you have to die. But not yet."

Ponytail tore his clothes off, wrenched his legs apart, and knelt between them. Huge, rough hands ran over his ass, fingers dug into the firm flesh. Ponytail's hot, hard cock rubbed the cleft between his buttocks.

"No! Please, God, no!"

Ponytail laughed. A third voice reached him then. Soft, insistent, soothing, muting Ponytail's laughter, an echo that was now, that reached to his soul and pulled it out of hell to a place that was green and alive. Below him were woven branches and soft mats, below them an infinitude of greens: emerald, viridian, olive, jade, malachite; shaped as broad umbrellas, splayed fingers, or narrow swords. Above him was the sky, intense azure, dotted with clouds like foam, so close he could almost touch. Beside him were smiling, brown-skinned people, with black hair and dark, shining eyes. A baby sat in his lap, gurgling happily, one dimpled fist clenched in his hair. A young woman smiled shyly and lowered her eyes. Cobalt and citron, a bird perched on a nearby roof, greedily eyeing a bowl of fruit. Butterflies danced over the treetops. A breeze carried the scent of distant blossoms. He sighed in contentment, and smiled. Here was peace, and light, and life. It was like nothing he had ever known. It was--

"Transcendent."

Blair stretched, and opened his eyes. Jim stood next to the bed, his forehead creased in worry, intense azure gaze fixed on him. Blair smiled.

"Hey, Jim."

"You okay, Partner?"

"Yeah, I'm great." Jim's brow smoothed. Blair glanced around, thought processes briefly kicking in. "You used the code word, didn't you?"

Jim nodded. "It worked, huh?"

"Oh, yeah." Blair smiled again. "You can go back to bed, man. Sorry you had to get up."

"Not a problem, Partner." Jim smiled at last. "Good night."

"Night, Jim."

Blair closed his eyes, and wriggled under the covers to get comfortable. Nightmare flashed through his mind, gone almost before he recognized it, replaced by golden light and green shadows. Leaves rustled, and the calls of gem-colored birds lulled him back into sleep.





"No...no...no, dammit, we covered this!"

Blair's red pen scratched across the bluebook spread open on the table before him. His muttered comments were as clear to Jim as the music coming from his headphones, some stuff full of drums and rattles that Jim could tolerate as long as it didn't get any louder. It made an interesting background to the Jags game.

Leaning forward, Jim reached into the pizza box on the coffee table, but came up empty. He eyed the two pieces of pineapple pizza still at Blair's elbow, and for a moment, considered trying one. Blair claimed it was delicious. Which should be enough to warn him not to go anywhere near it. Besides, there was just something unnatural about putting fruit on pizza. Tomatoes didn't count.

"No! Geez, Joshua, I explained this to you."

Jim shook his head, smiling a little. Blair had woken up happy this morning. He'd come bouncing out of his room almost like his old self, prattling on about the wonderful dreams he'd had, with no memory of the nightmare that had made him cry out in his sleep. Until his steps had brought him toward the living room, and he'd stopped, all the color draining from his face. He'd recovered quickly, but something gained had been lost in those few seconds. He'd eaten breakfast, parked himself at the table, and hadn't moved for more than five minutes since, even to eat.

"Aaaaaaaaargh!"

Blair flung the bluebook down the hall, and tossed the pen after it. Yanking the earphones off, he put his head down on one arm and pounded the table with his fist.

Jim got up and went to the refrigerator. He grabbed two bottles of beer, opened one for himself, and set the other on the table in front of Blair. Blair raised his head, gazing at the bottle.

"Thanks, man." He removed his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why don't they listen?"

Jim shrugged. "They're kids, Professor. They've got better things to do." He took a long swallow. "You were a kid, once. Last week, wasn't it?"

Blair regarded him sourly. "I paid attention in class."

"I'll bet."

"I did!" Blair's declaration rang through the apartment. He thought a moment, and amended, "Mostly."

"Uh-huh."

Blair twisted the cap off the bottle and brought it to his lips. "I never flunked a test."

"Not everyone's as smart as you are, Einstein."

Blair shook his head, a blush creeping over his face. "The test's not that hard, Jim." He drank, and pushed his hair back. "Maybe I'm just a bad teacher."

"Maybe they're just stupid."

A grin curved the full lips. "It's a possibility."

Blair sighed, and got up to retrieve the book and pen he'd thrown. He looked tired. Maybe he'd gone back to teaching too soon. Or back to being his partner. Blair would've been better off if Jim hadn't asked for his help in the Hatch case. Certainly, he would have been safer. Jim had needed Blair on this one; he still did. But it wasn't right to put so much pressure on him, after what the kid had been through. It wasn't right to put him in danger. Maybe he should-- No, Blair would never let Jim exclude him now. He'd plead, and argue, and insist that Jim couldn't solve the case without him. And he'd be right.

"Why don't you take a break, Partner?"

Blair sat down again without looking at him. "I can't, Jim, I have to get these done."

"An hour off isn't going to--"

"Jim."

"Okay, half an hour. Relax, watch the rest of the game, get your mind on something else. You've been at this for twelve hours, Sandburg."

"Jim, I don't have time." Blair turned in his seat to look at him. "Do me a favor, man. Next weekend, get yourself a date, will you?"

"A date?"

"Yeah, man, you need to get out of the apartment."

"Sorry, Casanova, some of us don't have a string of women just waiting for us to have a free night."

Blair grinned, and shook his head. "Come on, Jim, are you seriously trying to tell me you can't get a date? What about Victoria Smith, in Vice? She likes you."

"Vicky Vice?" An image of the six-foot, blonde Detective Smith pressing weights in the gym passed through Jim's mind. "No thanks, Sandburg."

"Jim, she's a fascinating woman."

"And she could probably take me two falls out of three."

Blair waggled his eyebrows. "It'd make for an interesting date."

"A little too interesting for me, Chief."

Blair looked away, his smile fading, and Jim realized what he had said. Damn.

"Sorry, kid."

"No, man, it's okay." Jim could see the effort it took for Blair to meet his eyes again. "I--I want you to call me that. It's--one of the things I miss most."

"Yeah?" Jim studied the younger man's hopeful, distressed face. "Are we into homework, here?"

"I guess so, man."

"Okay." Jim finished his beer and sat down, facing Blair. "What else do you miss?"

"Women," he said automatically, but his smile didn't reach his eyes. Blair ran one finger across the tabletop, his heartbeat increasing speed. "Sleeping. Being able to walk out on the street by myself without being afraid."

"What do you miss most?"

Without hesitation. "You, Jim."

Jim frowned, and spread his hands. "I'm right here, buddy."

"That's not what I mean, man." Blair shoved his hair behind his ears. "I miss the way we used to be. Easy. Comfortable. You know?"

"Yeah." Jim nodded. "I know, Partner."

Blair looked at him again. "Your turn, Jim. What do you miss most?"

Jim shifted in his chair. "This is gonna sound weird."

"No, it's not," Blair replied calmly. "Tell me."

Jim clenched his jaw, then forced the words. "Touching you."

Blue eyes flashed up at him, and Jim looked away. "I told you it would sound weird."

"No, man," Blair insisted. "It doesn't. I know exactly what you mean. You're a very sensual man, Jim. Don't freak on me," he added hastily. "That just means that your senses are important to you. You're a Sentinel, man, they'd have to be, even more than to other people. Touch is a part of that. You touch people all the time. You use it to convey emotions that aren't apparent on your face or in your words. They've gotta have some outlet, and yours is your touch."

"Thank you, Dr. Sandburg," Jim deadpanned.

"Am I wrong?" Blair demanded.

"No," Jim admitted. "You're not wrong. Does it bother you that I do that?"

"No." Blair studied the table again. "Well, it did at first. I was taught that it was wrong for men to touch each other, that it wasn't--normal. I knew that was stupid, Jim, I did, but--stuff you learn as a kid gets ingrained, you know?" Blair glanced at him, looking for approval, for God's sake. Jim nodded, and he continued. "The first few times you tapped my face or put a hand on my shoulder, I didn't know what was up. It made me kind of uncomfortable, but I didn't want to say anything, because I didn't want to make you mad at me. Then I figured out why you did it, and it was okay. After a while, I--I liked it. It made me feel--accepted. Like you weren't just tolerating me, you really wanted me around. It was kind of like--like you were my big brother, or something."

"Yeah." Jim nodded again. The kid really did understand. "Just like that."

The eyes flew up. "Really, Jim?"

"Really."

"Man, I wish...."

"Don't worry, Blair, we'll get there."

"I hope so, man. It's getting kind of lonely in here by myself."

"Yeah," Jim said quietly. "I know exactly what you mean."





Blair followed Jim into the squad room, grinning at everyone they passed. The weekend hadn't been exciting, but it had been productive. There'd been no emergencies to disturb them. He'd gotten all the midterms graded, written his paper on Wainwright's mask, and still had time to take in a movie with Jim last night, for the first time in two months. He and Jim had even done their homework, which would make Dr. Hawthorne happy. Okay, they'd skipped Friday, but she didn't have to know that.

Dumping his pack beside his chair, Blair took off his jacket and hung it on the rack beside Jim's. He turned to see Martin Ballard approaching Jim's desk, a sheet of paper in his hand. Jim stood to meet him, smiling. Blair busied himself with his backpack. Ballard usually ignored him, and that was the way he liked it.

"Marty," Jim said.

"Ellison," Ballard replied. Seconds later, "Sandburg."

Blair's head snapped up. He glanced from Jim to Ballard. "Uh--hi."

Ballard handed the paper to Jim. "This came in for you ten minutes ago."

"Thanks."

Ballard went back to his desk. Jim watched him all the way, but Blair kept his eyes on the Sentinel. Something was weird here. "Jim--"

"Why don't you get us some coffee, okay, Partner?"

Jim fixed his attention on the paper in his hand. Blair looked from him to Ballard again. "Yeah. Okay, man."

Blair went to the coffee station, poured two cups, grabbed a donut for Jim and a bagel for himself, and went back to the desk. Something was definitely up between Jim and Ballard. Whatever it was, it had to be connected to his phone call last Wednesday. Maybe he shouldn't have told Jim about it. On the other hand, if it kept Ballard from acting like an asshole, maybe it was a good thing he had.

Blair set everything down on the desk. Without taking his eyes from whatever he was reading, Jim reached for his coffee.

"Thanks, Chief."

The corner of Jim's mouth twitched downward. He glanced at Blair, unsure of his reaction. Blair held his breath in dread. Nothing. No flash of Ponytail's face, or of his voice. He let out his breath, and smiled.

"You're welcome, Jim."

Sitting down, Blair dug into his backpack. While Jim prepared for his ten o'clock interrogation of Rupert Crowley, Blair went over the notes for Tuesday's lecture, revising and making additions. Most reiterated material that Keith swore he'd covered while substituting for him. Blair didn't exactly doubt him, but even his best students had missed one or two points, and Blair had concluded that Keith's definition of what constituted coverage differed from his own. So he'd go over the material again, and they'd better pay attention, because he was quizzing them on it on Thursday. They wouldn't like it so soon after the midterm, but he had to do something to make sure the information was drummed into their heads.

At about 9:30, Jim's phone rang. "Ellison. Hi, Serena. Uh-huh." He listened for a few minutes, muttered, "Damn," thanked her and hung up.

"What's up, Jim?" Blair asked.

"No go on the fingerprints from your office," Jim replied. "They've got yours, and mine, and no match for any of the others. Our guy doesn't have a record."

Blair shook his head. "Man, I hope Rupert knows something."

"Me, too, Partner. We could use a break in this case."

Ten o'clock came and went with no sign of Rupert Crowley or his lawyer. As each minute passed, Blair watched Jim's jaw clench tighter and tighter. By 10:25, he was on the phone to Rupert's apartment. He waited a few minutes, then slammed the receiver down and picked it right up again. Simon chose that moment to come out of his office.

"Ellison! Where the hell is Rupert Crowley?"

"I don't know, sir." Jim sounded surprisingly calm. "There's no answer at his apartment. I'm about to call his--"

"Detective Ellison?"

A woman entered the bullpen. Blair's eyebrows rose. She was in her mid-thirties, tall, with strong features, dark eyes, and a stylish cap of thick black hair. A gray power suit was tailored to fit her slender frame. Tiny gold hoops dangled from her ears. Those, a modest chain, and a plain gold wedding band were her only jewelry. She carried an expensive black briefcase that screamed "lawyer". Jim met her gaze coolly.

"Nice of you to drop in, Ms. Alvarez. Where's your client?"

She looked flustered for a moment, but recovered quickly. "I thought he might be here."

Jim pretended to look around, then spread his hands. "We don't have him. Where is he?"

Her fingers clutched the handle of the briefcase. "I don't know, Detective. Mr. Crowley was supposed to meet me at my office at nine. He hasn't called. I can't reach him."

"So, you're telling me Crowley jumped bail."

Ms. Alvarez shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't believe Mr. Crowley would do that."

"No. Of course not."

"He's an innocent man, Detective," she snapped. "He has no reason to run."

"They're all innocent, Ms. Alvarez," Jim replied. "Isn't that what they tell you?"

"Put out an APB on Rupert Crowley," Simon barked. "Jim, get to his apartment, see what you can find."

"Yes, sir." Jim stood up. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair hastily stuffed everything back into his pack and followed Jim out the door. Twenty minutes later, Jim parked the truck in front of Rupert's apartment building. They sat for a moment, looking up at the fourth floor windows.

"You think he's in there?" Blair asked.

"Only one way to find out." Jim started to get out of the truck, and paused to look back at Blair. "You want to wait out here, just in case?"

"I'm not afraid of him, Jim."

Blair opened the door and jumped out, heading for the building. Jim caught up to him in seconds.

"I didn't say you were, Partner. But Crowley doesn't like you much."

"I don't like him, either." Jim opened the door, and Blair ducked under his arm, entering the apartment building. "Now, the blond guy with the gun: him, I'm scared of."

"Don't worry, Sandburg," Jim said. "He won't get another crack at you. As of last Friday, you're under twenty-four hour police protection."

"I am?" This was the first he'd heard of it. Why hadn't Jim told him earlier? They stepped into the elevator, and Jim pressed "4". Oh no. "Jim, is that why you were home all weekend?"

"I was home because I was home, Sandburg. If I'd wanted to go out, I'd have gotten a baby sitter."

"That didn't work out too well, last time." Blair closed his eyes, unable to believe what had just come out of his mouth. God, why was he so stupid? "I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't mean--"

"No, you're right, Blair." Jim stared straight ahead. "I promise, this time I'll do a better job."

The elevator stopped, and Jim got off. Blair hurried after him. "Jim, it wasn't your fault."

"Then whose fault was it?"

"Ponytail's. Come on, man, you know that."

Jim glanced at him. "Yeah. My head knows."

"Well, clue the rest of your body in, will you, Jim? No guilt allowed, okay?"

A grin curved his lips. "I'm working on it, Partner."

Jim stopped short, and flung an arm out to keep Blair from passing him. Blair craned to look around his taller partner. The door to apartment 403 stood slightly ajar. Drawing his gun, Jim listened for a moment before proceeding.

"Stay behind me, Chief."

"Do you hear anything?"

Jim shook his head. He reached the door, kicked it open all the way, and waited. Nothing. No sound or movement that Blair could hear, and by the look of it, nothing Jim could hear either.

"Cascade PD, Crowley," Jim announced. "If you're in there, come out."

There was no reply, but Blair knew Jim hadn't expected any. The apartment had to be empty: Jim would have told him if he'd detected a heartbeat. He was just following procedure. That, or he didn't trust his Sentinel abilities.

That was not a thought Blair wanted to have. He pushed it aside, and crept into the apartment behind Jim, as ordered. The place definitely belonged to Mr. Beige. The walls were cream, the carpet tan, the furniture blond wood upholstered in tan and off-white tweed. There was no color anywhere that Blair could see. Even the pictures on the walls were in shades of brown. Rupert had to be the most boring guy on the face of the earth.

Jim sniffed the air. "Stay here."

He moved off down a short hallway, into another room. Blair waited a couple of minutes, but Jim didn't come out again. "Jim?"

No answer. Damn, Jim could be zoning on something. Blair went after him. He had to back Jim up; that was his job.

"Jim? Man, are you o--Oh. Oh, God."

Jim stood just inside Crowley's bedroom, hands at his sides, the gun forgotten in his right. There was color in this room. Splashed on the walls, spattered on the carpet, streaking the chair where what had been a man slumped, staring at the ceiling with unseeing beige eyes. Red. Red everywhere. So much red. And fallen from one hand, a gun: black.

Jim stirred and moved to block the doorway, freeing Blair from the sight. He had to speak twice before Blair really heard.

"Go wait out in the hall."

Blair looked at Jim, nodded, and turned to go. His mind was numb, blank, empty of thought. His vision was filled with red. Behind him, he heard Jim flip his cell phone open and punch in a number.

"Simon? It's Ellison. We found Rupert Crowley."

 

End Part 19

Part 20