Masks: Part 22

Blair sipped his tea, feeling guilty. Jim was waiting for him out in the truck, while he sat comfortably ensconced in Dr. Hawthorne's armchair, drinking tea, preparing to spend yet another hour talking about himself. If asked, Jim would insist that he didn't mind, but that just made it worse. Jim should be trying to solve the Hatch murder, or one of his other cases; instead, he was wasting his time baby-sitting for Blair, just as he'd wasted the entire afternoon watching him examine Olive Palmer's Mombatu mask, with no results. Blair had tried to get Jim to go back to the station for a while and come back to pick him up when he was done, but Jim had refused to leave him. Thank God Ms. Palmer had come back to check on them and all but commanded Jim to play chess with her. Blair had been surprised that Jim agreed, astounded that Jim knew how to play chess at all. The subject had never come up between them. Blair played, but only if he had something else to do at the same time, or the wait between moves drove him crazy. Patience had never been one of his virtues.

"What's wrong, Blair?" Dr. Hawthorne asked.

Bagged. Blair grimaced, and told her.

"So, you think Jim's time could be better spent elsewhere?"

"I know it could. Simon could assign a uniform to watch me, but Jim would never go for it."

"Why not?"

"Because the last time he did that, Ponytail kidnapped me. Jim blames himself. And I reminded him of it yesterday. I put my big fat foot right in it."

"And what if you hadn't said anything? How would Jim feel then?"

Blair shrugged. "Probably the same."

"Blair, your life has been threatened. Jim is worried about you. That's understandable, don't you think?"

"Yeah. But worrying about me shouldn't take precedence over doing his job."

"What do you think is more important to Jim: your life or solving this case?"

"My life. But it shouldn't be. Jim wouldn't put his own life first, he shouldn't put mine first either."

"I doubt that you could convince him of that."

"So do I." Blair put his teacup down and rubbed his eyes. "We wouldn't even be having this problem if I wasn't such a wuss."

"What do you mean?"

"The other day, in my office, the guy pushed me down and told me to stay there until I counted to fifty, so he could get away. He left, and I couldn't move. I should have gone after him, and I just lay there."

"If you had gone after him, he might have shot you."

"In front of witnesses? I doubt it."

"You don't know that. If he were desperate enough, he might very well have shot you, or some other innocent person. You made the wisest choice, Blair."

Blair shot to his feet, pacing. "I didn't make a choice! I couldn't make a choice! I was too scared. I didn't have to catch the guy. All I had to do was get a look at him. But I couldn't even do that. I couldn't even get up until it was too late." Blair raked his hair back. "God, I'm so useless! Blair Sandburg, easy prey, all-purpose victim. I should've killed him!"

"Who, Blair? Who should you have killed?"

"Him! Ponytail!" Dr. Hawthorne's office was gone. He was in the attic again, Jim's gun clutched in his trembling hands while Ponytail advanced on him. "I had the gun. He said I couldn't do it, I couldn't shoot him, but I did. I pulled the trigger, and he went down. But I didn't kill him. I couldn't even do that right."

"You stopped him, Blair. You saved Jim's life, and your own, and you didn't take another life to do it."

"But I should have! Don't you get it? He should be dead! But he's alive, and the feds have him, and we have no idea what they'll do with him. They might decide to let him out, they might make him one of them. Or he could escape. He could come back here, and we'd never know, because he could be anyone, literally anyone, and we wouldn't know until it was too late."

"He won't be back, Blair."

"You don't know that! Jim says the same thing, but you don't know, you can't know." Blair shook his head. "I should have killed him. I should have made sure he was dead, but I couldn't move. What if he tells them about Jim? What if he tells them, and the feds take Jim away? God, why didn't I kill him?"

"Blair, I want you to calm down," Dr. Hawthorne said. "I want you to sit down, and try to relax. Relax and listen to me. Listen, now. Do you trust me?"

Blair sat down slowly. "Yes."

"Then listen. Ponytail is not coming back. Whatever agency has him will not release him or allow him to escape. They know about his shapeshifting abilities, and they know he's insane. He's far too dangerous for anyone to attempt to recruit him, and I'm sure they're afraid enough of him to make certain he's held more securely than any prisoner they've ever had. As for telling them about Jim, he may have done so already. He'd have no reason to wait. But nothing's happened, has it? No mysterious men have tried to spirit Jim away."

"It's not a joke!"

"I know it isn't. Blair, Jim was a Ranger, he was involved in covert operations. He knows how these people work. Has he seemed concerned about any of this?"

"No."

"Then I think you should take your cue from Jim. Trust his instincts, rather than your fears. Do you think you can do that?"

"I don't know. I'll try."

"Good. One more thing, Blair. Do you think Jim would have wanted you to kill Ponytail?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you?"

"No," he admitted. "Jim doesn't kill unless he has to. He wouldn't want me to, either. And he wouldn't want me to have to."

He knew she was right. Jim didn't even like him to have to look at bodies; he'd never want Blair to be forced to take a life. But it didn't matter what Jim wanted for him. It didn't matter what it would have done to his psyche. He would never be safe, Jim would never be safe, because when the chance came, when the gun was in his hand, he'd failed. Ponytail was alive, and whatever happened, whatever consequences came of that, would be his fault.





Screaming for Jim, Blair ran from the shadows, his voice and footsteps echoing back at him from the darkness, confusing him. He didn't know where to go, which way safety might lie, so he ran straight on. Pain shot through his ribs, and he clutched his side, but he didn't stop, he couldn't. He could feel someone behind him, feel him, but when he turned his head, he saw only faceless shadows, moving silently, getting closer, closer, no matter how hard he ran.

"Jim!" he shrieked, and a hand grabbed his hair, yanked him back, slammed him into a body cold and hard as stone. Metal touched his neck; he flinched from the click of a hammer too close to his ear.

"I warned you, genius," the voice said. "You didn't listen. You get an F."

The gun's roar deafened him. The grip tightened in his hair, then the fingers fell away, ripping tangled strands from his scalp. The body fell back, dissolving into shadow, and he lurched forward. Jim stepped out of the darkness, gun in hand, and caught him in one strong arm. He clung to the older man, fighting to breathe. The shadows ebbed and flowed around them. Where the shadows touched, there was no light, no air, no life.

"Jim," he gasped. "Jim. He was gonna kill me."

"I know, Chief. It's okay. He's gone."

"No." He pulled back, staring around him trying to see into the darkness. "He's not gone. He's still out there."

Threads of darkness slipped between them, twisted into ropes and tendrils that twined around their arms and legs, slid around their chests. Shadow-fingers gripped wrists and ankles, wrenched him out of Jim's grasp, pulled them away from each other. He cried out, and shadow filled his mouth, tried to reach for Jim, but shadow held him back, shadow rushed away, carried him helpless in its current, and Jim dwindled in the distance, until he was gone, and there was nothing, only the darkness, and in his ears, the harsh laughter of a man who should be dead.





Jim sat up, heart pounding, and wiped sweat from his face and the back of his neck. Jesus, what a nightmare. He--

"Jim! Jiiiiiim!"

God, Blair. Jim leaped from the bed, automatically reaching for his gun, and forced himself to stop, to tune out the screams and listen. Two heartbeats: his and Blair's. There was no one else in the apartment. Leaving the gun on the nightstand, Jim rushed down the stairs and into Blair's room. The kid was tangled in the bedclothes, caught in the grip of nightmare, still screaming Jim's name.

"Blair," Jim called. Shit, he hated this stuff. "Blair! It's Jim. I want you to listen to me, buddy. Listen. Transcendent. Transcendent."

At the sound of the code word, Blair's breath caught. The screams stopped, and his body relaxed. "Transcendent," Jim said again, softly now, and he thought Blair might find a better dream, but the tousled head shifted, and cornflower eyes opened, finding him as he stood beside the bed.

"Jim."

"You okay, kid?"

"Yeah." One hand disentangled itself from the sheet to peel sweat-soaked hair off his face. "I did it again, huh?"

"'Fraid so."

Blair stared at the ceiling. "Man, I don't even remem... Shadows."

"What?" Shadows wrapped around his body, pulled Blair away from him. "What did you say?"

"Oh." Blair flushed. "Nothing, man, just something from the nightmare. It was a weird one."

"Yeah." I know. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No. It's no big deal, Jim. I'm sorry you had to get up."

"Not a problem, Sandburg. You gonna be okay if I go back to bed?"

"Sure."

Jim turned to leave the room, but Blair's voice stopped him.

"Jim?"

He looked back. "Yeah?"

"Are you sure he's gone? Are you absolutely sure that he's never coming back?"

"I'm absolutely sure."

"Okay. Good night, Jim."

"Good night, kid."

Jim left Blair's room, closing the doors softly, and stood for a few minutes, waiting for Blair's breathing to change to a sleep-pattern. He hadn't lied to him. He was sure that Ponytail would never be back. He should have killed the bastard before; if he got another chance, if Ponytail ever managed to get out, he wouldn't fail. He'd kill him before he could get near Blair again. Of that, he was absolutely sure.





Jim sat at the table, reading the sports section while he drank his orange juice, one ear tuned toward the shower. Sandburg had left it too long again, the little hedonist. If he didn't get out of there soon, the hot water was going to--

"Shit!"

Smiling slightly at this bit of predictability, Jim turned the page. Minutes later, Blair emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of scent: herbal shampoo and soap, shaving cream, and deodorant. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and was using another to rub his dripping hair. No blow-dryer for Nature Boy. Blair claimed they were bad for your hair, but a ringleted woman had once told Jim that blow-drying took the curl out, and he had a sneaking suspicion that vanity was the reason behind Blair's aversion. He wouldn't call him on it, though. He wasn't exactly in a position to judge what other people chose to do with their full heads of hair. Anyway, Blair would just accuse him of envy. It wasn't, of course, but he could see how Blair could build a case for it.

Blair disappeared into his room. He came out again in less than five minutes, fully dressed and scribbling something in a notebook. There was juice on the table for him. He drank it down without once taking his eyes from the notebook. He looked better. Still tired; there were dark circles under his eyes, but they were lighter than they had been, and his skin wasn't quite as pale. Compared to three months ago, he looked healthy, but there was still a long way to go.

Sensing the observation, Blair glanced up. "What?"

"Good morning," Jim said.

"Oh. Morning. Sorry, man, I was kind of absorbed."

"In what?"

"Nothing important. I just had an idea for a paper. What's for breakfast?"

"Depends," Jim replied. "What are you making?"

The blue eyes widened. "It's my turn? Sorry, Jim, I forgot." Blair got up and headed for the kitchen. "What do you feel like?"

"Eggs."

"Jim, you always feel like eggs."

"Yeah, and you hardly ever let me have them, Mr. Nutrition, so how about it?"

Blair sighed. "Okay, man, but don't blame me when your cholesterol goes off the chart."

Blair continued to complain about his dietary choices while he cooked. Jim considered asking for bacon, too, but decided not to provoke his roommate any further and settled for tuning out Blair's voice until scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee were set before him.

"Thanks."

Jim folded his paper and started to eat. Blair studied him for a minute, then went back to the kitchen for a bowl of some cereal that contained all the vitamins and minerals you could ever want, but tasted like cardboard. At least, to Jim. Blair claimed to like the stuff. While he ate, Jim felt the younger man's eyes on him. Turn about. He looked up.

"What is it, Chief?"

"You look tired. Did you get any sleep last night?"

"That's my question."

"No, it isn't. You can tell whether I'm sleeping or not. I have to ask."

"I had a little trouble getting back to sleep," Jim admitted.

"Did you have to use the word on me again?"

"It wasn't you, Sandburg." Jim hesitated. "I had my own nightmare."

"You did? What about?"

"What do you remember about yours?"

"Not much." Blair frowned. "Shadows. Someone was after me."

"But you couldn't see his face. He was part of the shadows. They were alive, somehow."

Blair nodded. "And they pulled me away from you." His eyes went wide again. "Jim! Did we have the same dream?"

"Sounds like it, Partner."

"Wow. This is--this is incredible. Why now?"

"What?"

"Well, I've been having nightmares for months. Why would we have the same one now? Do you think it means something? Do you think the panther's trying to communicate with us again?"

"Whoa, Chief, let's not jump to conclusions here. We had the same dream. It doesn't have to mean anything."

"But what if it does?"

"Then we'll find out, sooner or later. The panther wasn't in mine. Was he in yours?"

"I don't think so. But he still could have sent them."

"Let's just wait and see, okay, Chief? Let's not get excited over this."

"Yeah," Blair agreed reluctantly. "Okay. But I think we should tell Dr. Hawthorne tomorrow."

Jim shook his head. "I'm not comfortable with that."

"Come on, Jim, you lost sleep over this. It could be psychologically significant. We have to tell her."

He rolled his eyes heavenward. "All right, Dr. Freud. If it means that much to you."

All through breakfast and all the way to the station--including the detour to Rainier for Jim to grab stacks of student ID files and Blair to borrow some testing tools--Blair chatted on about dreams: their significance in various cultures, ways of interpreting them, alternate psychological views. Jim half-listened, wondering if there was any subject Blair didn't know something about. Simon was continually amazed by the kid's widespread knowledge. To tell the truth, so was he, but he didn't like to let either his captain or his partner know that. A lot of cases would have gone unsolved if Blair hadn't zeroed in on some obscure point. Blair was an observer with the department. He could easily have chosen to do just that, observe Jim, maybe help him with the Sentinel stuff, and nothing more. Instead he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into police work, using every resource at his disposal--especially that convoluted brain of his--to help Jim solve his cases. Jim was proud of him for that. So proud that he'd never been able to find the words to tell him. Besides, he had the feeling that, if he did tell him, Blair wouldn't believe him. Not that Blair would think he was lying. It was just that the kid made an art of self-deprecation. And that was another thing Dr. Hawthorne needed to work on with him.

 

End Part 22

Part 23