Masks: Part 2

Blair didn't get home until after eleven. Jim heard a car stop out front, then drive away; heard the outside door open and close; heard footsteps on the stairs, approaching the door. He shut the television off, leaving the living room in darkness. A key turned in the lock, and Blair tiptoed in. Jim studied his partner from the shadows. Streaked with auburn and gold by the lamplight, the wild tumble of brown curls brushed Blair's shoulders, falling forward to screen his face until he remembered to shove it back. The kid was too thin. The cleft in his chin was more pronounced, his angular jaw so sharp it looked as though it would cut through the flesh. His full lips were dark against pale skin, and there were circles under the wide blue eyes. Normally, those eyes were clear and open; now they were shadowed, the color darkened.

Jim stood up, and Blair started violently. He went white in fear of a memory, then red when memory gave way to reason. There was a tremor in his voice.

"Jim. What are you doing up?"

"Waiting for you."

"In the dark?"

"I had the TV on."

"Oh."

Blair hung up his jacket, turned to find Jim near, and backed up a step. Jim shook his head. He was handling this all wrong. The last thing he wanted was to frighten Blair. He made sure his voice was quiet, but he couldn't keep it as flat as he wanted.

"Sandburg, where have you been?"

Blair wouldn't look at him. One hand slid back and forth over the strap of his backpack. "At the U."

"I called there two hours ago. There was no answer."

"I wasn't in my office two hours ago. I was talking to Keith Parks. He subbed for me while I was--while I was gone." Blair looked up then, a spark of defiance in his eyes. "What is this, Jim? Are you checking up on me now?"

"No. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You left kind of suddenly this morning."

Blair's gaze dropped again. "I had a lot of work to do. I told you that."

"I know what you told me, Sandburg."

The clear blue eyes met his, anger in their depths. "You don't believe me. You think I'm a liar, now? You don't trust me anymore, is that it?"

Where did that come from? Jim started to reach out, saw Sandburg tense, and turned the gesture into spreading his hands. "Sandburg, I trust you. You're my partner. But I'm not blind. You were upset about something when you left this morning. What happened?"

"Nothing!"

Folding his arms, Jim fixed his eyes on the younger man. He didn't say another word; he didn't have to.

"I had a flashback," Blair admitted. "It was no big deal, I just--had to get out. So I went to the U. I had to go there anyway."

"The last bus leaves the campus at 9:30. How'd you get home?"

"Keith gave me a ride!" The anger was back. "Dammit, Jim, since when do you get to interrogate me?"

"Since a month ago."

The minute he said it, he knew he shouldn't have. Fear drained all the anger from Blair's eyes. His voice was almost a whisper.

"Ponytail's gone, Jim. He's gone. He's not coming back. That's what you told me. Didn't you?"

Ponytail? Well, it fit. Jim nodded. "He's gone, Partner. We won't see him again."

"Then why are you--why are you doing this?" Blair's heart was slamming in his chest. "Is someone else after me?"

Jim's first impulse was to put his hand on the narrow shoulder, to reassure Blair without words. But he couldn't do that anymore. If he touched him, Blair would bolt. He folded his arms more tightly, and kept his distance.

"No, Sandburg. No one's after you."

"Then why? You must have a reason." Eyes wide and blue as a newborn pup's rose to his. "Tell me, Jim."

Aw, hell. "I was worried, that's all."

"That's all?" Blair's heartbeat was slowing, returning to normal. "There's no other reason?"

"No."

Blair gave a half-laugh, shaking his head. "You were worried." He shook his head again, and smiled. "Thanks, Jim."

Blair shouldered his pack and disappeared into his room. Jim stared after him. He didn't get it. A minute ago, Blair had been ripping into him for asking questions, and now he was grateful? Sometimes, he thought he was never going to understand how his partner's mind worked. It didn't follow any logical pattern. What had Blair said once? "I go back and forth with things when the Muse strikes." That statement certainly seemed to fit his reasoning. He'd never seen anyone jump between seemingly unrelated subjects as quickly as Blair did, and then incorporate them all into a single unique solution. But right now, that didn't matter. The kid had survived his first day back. He was home, safe, and peace was restored. That was all that mattered.





Jim rapped on the bathroom door. "Let's go, Sandburg. Breakfast's on."

He went back to the kitchen, shoveled a stack of pancakes out of the frying pan and onto a plate, and set the plate at Sandburg's place. Blair emerged from the bathroom, shuffling down the hall in socks and Jim's old Cascade PD sweatshirt. He'd pushed the sleeves up so they wouldn't cover his hands, but the sweatshirt was so long on him that it fell halfway to his knees. Jim hoped there were boxers under there somewhere, but he wasn't about to ask. A huge yawn split Blair's face. He raised a hand to cover it, and ended up with sleeve instead of fingers. Jim hid his grin behind his coffee mug. He gestured at the sweatshirt with the spatula.

"Where'd you get that?"

"The laundry," Blair replied.

"The dirty laundry."

"Come on, Jim, it's not like you were mud-wrestling in it." Alarm crossed his face. "You don't mind, do you? It's a little cold this morning, and--well, it was right there."

"No, Sandburg, I don't mind. But if you're cold, why don't you put some pants on?"

"Huh?" Blair looked down at his bare legs. "Oh. Right. Be right back."

Blair vanished into his room, and reappeared moments later wearing his jeans. And the sweatshirt. Yawning, he slipped into his chair, his eyes going wide at the sight of breakfast. "Pancakes! Great!"

Show time. Blair forked the pancakes one at a time and laid them out around his plate, making sure that no edge overlapped any other. Next, he carefully spread strawberry jam over each one, coating the entire surface. Finally, he grabbed the maple syrup and poured a thin stream on top of the jam, back and forth, around and around, creating an intricate pattern. Jim shook his head. Blair did it the same way every time. Lately, Jim made pancakes just to see the performance. He couldn't understand how Blair could actually eat it.

"Got enough sugar, there, Partner?"

Blair just waggled his eyebrows, and shoved a forkful of jam and maple pancake into his mouth. Jim looked away, switching his concentration to his own breakfast. Blair ate quickly, alternating sips of orange juice and coffee. At least he didn't mix them together. He'd threatened to, once. He finished the pancakes, and poured himself another cup of coffee, yawning again.

"You gonna be able to stay awake today, Sandburg?"

"Yeah." Blair yawned once more. "I was up late last night, reading Keith's notes. I've gotta teach a class today, and I have to know what they've been doing."

"Does this mean you're not coming with me today?"

Blair studied his mug. "I can't, Jim. Class goes from 9 to 11, then I've gotta try to get caught up."

Jim nodded, accepting the excuse. "Did you get your office cleaned up?"

Blair laughed a little. "I didn't have to. Someone did it for me." He fixed Jim with a direct eye and a raised eyebrow. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"Me?" Jim shook his head. "Sorry, Sherlock, wrong suspect."

"I wish I knew who it was. I'd like to thank them. You should've seen the place, Jim, I totally trashed it. Whoever cleaned it up restored all the artifacts, put them back on the shelves, and straightened out all the paperwork. It's never been so neat in there." The eye was back. "It really wasn't you?"

"Sandburg, I don't know squat about restoring artifacts."

Fortunately, there were plenty on campus who did. When Jim had asked for volunteers, he'd been surprised and gratified by the response. Blair had no idea how well-liked he was at the university. Of course, most of the volunteers had been female. Blair was always more popular with women than with men, a fact that Jim was sure didn't bother Sandburg at all.

"Well, it sure saved me a lot of time," Blair said. "I would've been months putting that stuff back together. The truth is, I was kind of afraid to go in there yesterday. When I saw it--" A smile lit his face. "Man, I was flabbergasted."

Jim smiled, and said nothing. That was just the effect he'd wanted to create.

They drank their coffee in companionable silence. Now and again, Jim glanced at Blair's face, to get an idea of what was going through his partner's head. Things seemed okay, until some thought jolted Blair, and his expression abruptly changed. Any trace of a smile vanished. He stared at the table, running his thumb up and down the handle of his mug.

"Jim, is it okay?" he blurted. "I mean, me not going in with you today? You don't need me for anything, do you?"

He had to be careful with this one. He was no psychologist, but he knew there was more to Blair's questions than what was on the surface. "Partner, I always need you. But if you have other work today, I guess I can get by without you. I can call if I have to."

Blair let out his breath. "Okay. Thanks, Jim."

Jim concealed his own relief. He'd gotten past that one. Now for the big one. "Don't forget your appointment with the counselor tonight."

Panic flashed through Blair's eyes. The thumb on the handle moved faster. "Jim, I've been thinking about that. I don't see how I can go."

Calmly. Calmly, dammit. "Why not?"

"Well, she's going to want me to tell her what happened. I can't do that. If I tell her about the shapeshifting, she'll think I'm nuts and have me locked up."

"No, she won't. Dr. Hawthorne knows all about it."

"But I can't tell her about the Sentinel stuff."

"She knows that, too."

Blair's eyes went wide. "You told her?"

Jim nodded. "You're right, Sandburg, she had to know or she would think you were nuts. So I told her."

"And she believed you?"

"Simon backed me up. I had to give her a little demonstration, to convince her, but she believed me." Eventually. "Don't worry, Sandburg: Dr. Hawthorne's the best. She's worked with the Department for years." Jim looked directly into Blair's eyes. "I want you to promise me that you'll show up tonight."

A small voice. "I will."

"That doesn't sound like a promise, Sandburg."

"Okay, I promise, I swear, on my honor as an anthropologist!" Blair snapped. "Is that enough, or do you want blood, too?"

"That should do it," Jim said quietly. He was not going to let the kid provoke him. Not about this. "Besides, at the moment, your blood's about three-quarters maple syrup. You can't swear an oath on maple syrup."

"You can in Vermont," Blair quipped.

Jim didn't even bother to reply.

 

End Part 2

Part 3