Masks: Part 26

Blair stayed behind Jim all the way through the hospital to Connelly's room. He was trying not to be nervous, knowing Jim would hear the speed of his heartbeat, but he couldn't help it. He still wasn't convinced that Connelly would want to see him. After all, every time the poor guy got stuck guarding Blair, someone hit him in the head. This time, he'd sustained a concussion and required twenty stitches. Next time--in the unlikely event there was a next time--Connelly could die.

They had spent the morning at the station, giving their statements about last night's events. Blair had faltered only twice: when he named Joshua as one of the murderers, and when he recounted his shooting of Geoffrey Hatch. When he talked about the shooting, he'd started to shake, so badly that he'd had to leave the room to compose himself. He'd expected to be sick, but he hadn't been, and that disturbed him almost more than if he had. Did this mean he was getting used to shooting people? That next time, he wouldn't even get the shakes, it wouldn't bother him at all? Would he become like Joshua, taking pleasure in killing? No. No, he'd never be like that. He couldn't be. There'd been something wrong with Joshua's mind. There was nothing wrong with his. Well, nothing that a year or two of therapy with Dr. Hawthorne shouldn't cure.

But if that was true, then what was wrong with Jim? When he talked about shooting Hatch, Jim had gone white. His expression hadn't changed, but he'd bent over in his chair, as if he were in pain. Blair had been too busy with his own reaction to say anything, but he'd noticed. Since then, Jim had been quiet, beyond taciturn. He'd hardly said a word at lunch, or on the way to the hospital. More than once, Blair had started to ask him what was wrong, but each time he'd stopped, afraid that Jim would tell him.

The nightmare he had shared with Jim darkened his mind. He had thought only part of it had come true: Joshua chasing him, grabbing him, dying. Was it all coming true? Were the shadows pulling him away from Jim, coming between them? Was that why Jim couldn't look at him when he talked about shooting Hatch? Did Jim see the shadows inside Blair, inside his soul?

Jim paused at the door, looking down at him. "It's not your fault, Blair."

Blair stared in alarm. Was Jim reading his mind? He shook himself mentally. Get a grip, doofus, he's talking about Connelly. "I know."

"Then breathe."

Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It helped, a little. "Okay."

Jim pushed the door open and went in; Blair followed more slowly.

Connelly was sitting up in bed, gauze patching one side of his head, the hair around it shaved off. He was talking animatedly to Tabitha Crow and Simon. When he saw Blair, he stopped talking and his smile faded. Blair wanted to run. But he didn't. He wouldn't.

"How you feeling, Connelly?" Jim asked.

"Fine, sir. I'll be out of here tomorrow, and back on duty next week."

"Desk duty," Simon qualified. "For at least a week."

Connelly made a face. "Yes, sir."

No one said anything. Oh, God. Blair looked at the floor, glanced around at everyone but Connelly, looked at the floor again. No one said anything. He should go. No one said anything. Get out of here, Sandburg.

Connelly cleared his throat. "Uh, I'd like to talk to Sandburg alone, if you folks don't mind."

I mind. But he didn't say it, and everybody left. Oh, shit, here it comes. Try to act like an adult here, Sandburg, at least look the man in the eye. He managed to raise his head, only to see Connelly examining the bedclothes.

"That's quite a contusion you've got," Connelly said.

Blair resisted the urge to touch his face. He shrugged. "It's no big deal." Not compared to what happened to you.

"I'm sorry," they said together.

Blair grinned, and caught an answering smile on Connelly's face. "Really, man, it was my fault."

Steve started to shake his head, winced, and stopped. "No way, Sandburg, it was mine. I was supposed to be guarding you."

"You were guarding me, Connelly. You knew Joshua was trouble, but I made you go against your instincts. If I hadn't been so stupid--"

"Sandburg, he was one of your students. You're supposed to trust them, just like I'm supposed to trust other cops. You give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it wasn't smart in this case, but it was still the right thing to do. You're too young to be a cynic."

Blair arched one eyebrow. "Look who's talking, man! You aren't any older than I am."

Connelly folded his arms and tried to look mature. Or tried to look like Jim, Blair wasn't sure which. "Six months, kid."

"Big whoop," Blair scoffed. "How do you know that?"

"Your date of birth's on your observer ID."

"Oh. Right."

Connelly grinned. "Along with your height."

"Hey, I'm average height," Blair declared, adding under his breath, "Almost."

"Sure you are. You don't mind if I call you Shorty from now on, do you?"

"As a matter of fact--"

Connelly laughed. "Just kidding, Sandburg."

"Yeah. I think you need to have your head x-rayed again, Connelly. See if there's anything in there."

To his astonishment, Connelly laughed again. "You ever think about becoming a cop, Sandburg?"

"Who, me? Seriously?"

"Yeah. The Captain said you handled yourself pretty well last night. Said you damn near resolved the situation yourself."

"Simon said that?"

"Don't let it go to your head, Sandburg." The Captain came back into the room, Jim and Tabitha behind him. "I've got to get back to the station, Steve," he said. "Don't give the nurses too much trouble. And make sure you rest this weekend."

"Yes, sir."

"See you, Simon," Blair said.

"Not so fast, Sandburg." Simon loomed over him. "You left something out of your statement this morning."

"Simon, I spent four hours giving that statement!"

Simon assumed a pained expression. "Don't remind me. Just answer one question: How in the hell did you know those were diamonds?"

"Did you touch them?" Blair asked.

"What's that got to do with it?"

"Humor me."

"All right, yes, I did. They were sort of slick. Greasy, almost."

"Right. That's how I knew."

Simon frowned. "You just happened to know that?"

"Oh. No, I had an uncle who was a diamond-cutter in New York. He taught me a lot when I was a kid. Wouldn't let me do any cutting, though."

"Uh-huh. Sandburg, is there anything you don't know? Wait." Simon held up his hand. "Don't answer that. I can't believe I even asked." He stalked to the door and pulled it open. "I'm going back to work. Ellison, Sandburg, I don't want to see either of you again until Monday, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," they chorused. Blair added, "Thanks, Simon."

Banks whipped his head around, glaring. "Sandburg--" The Captain's face softened. "You're welcome."





For the fifth time that day, Blair described what had happened in the Geology Lab last night. Dr. Hawthorne listened in silence, occasionally making notes. Jim watched Blair, until he reached the part where the hall lights had gone out, startling him, and Jim had to look away. Blair faltered, his heartbeat speeding up, and Jim knew he should meet the kid's eyes again, but he couldn't. God, how could he have been so stupid?

"You're lucky to be alive," Dr. Hawthorne said when Blair was finished.

"It wasn't luck," Blair said. "It was Jim."

"No." Jim shook his head vehemently. He looked up then, forced himself to meet Blair's eyes. "It wasn't me. I almost got you killed."

"What are you talking about?"

"The lights, Blair. You were doing fine, you got the drop on Hatch and Stanhope, you had everything under control. Until I turned the lights off. If Stanhope had killed you, it would have been my fault."

Blair stared at him with what looked like--relief? "Jim, that's not true."

"Yes it is."

"No, man." Blair's voice softened. "You heard the shots, you didn't know I had the gun. You were trying to save me. You did save me."

Jim just shook his head.

"Yes," Blair insisted. "Come on, Jim, you're giving me too much credit here. Sure, I had the drop on Joshua, but I didn't know what the hell to do with him. You saw him, he was crazy. I knew he was going to try something sooner or later, and I--I don't know if I could have stopped him."

"You shot Hatch."

Blair winced, and Jim cursed himself. Great, Ellison, remind him of it. "Hatch wasn't one of my students. Joshua would have gotten me, Jim. He knew it, and so did I. If you hadn't shown up, he would have killed me. Trust me on this, man, you saved my life. I'm just sorry you had to kill him to do it."

Jim's voice was quiet. "Better me than you, kid."

"Jim." Blair glanced at Dr. Hawthorne, who nodded encouragement. "Does it bother you that you killed him?"

"Yeah." Jim ran a hand over his face. "Yes, of course it does. But not nearly as much as it would if he'd killed you."

"You've probably heard this a million times, man, but: Do you ever get used to it?"

Jim gathered his words carefully. He wanted to get this right, to help Blair understand. "No. You never do. What you get used to is dealing with it by not dealing with it. You lock your feelings in a part of your mind where they can't interfere, and you do your job."

"Did you learn that in the Army?"

"Yeah. You have to, or you can't function. But eventually, you have to deal with it. Or you go nuts."

"Think I could learn it?"

God! "I hope not."

"Why?"

Jim hesitated. "Blair, there's--you're not gonna like this, but hear me out--there's an innocence to you, in the way you look at things, the way you react, the way your feelings are right there for everyone to see, so strong sometimes they knock me over, or remind me that there's something better in the world than whatever lowlife scum we're after. No matter what happens, no matter what you've been through, it's still there. If you had to kill someone, you might lose it. I wouldn't want to see that happen."

"I'm not innocent, Jim." Blair's voice fell to a whisper. "Not after Ponytail."

There was so much pain in those words that Jim had to clench his fists to keep from grabbing the kid's shoulders. "Yes, you are. He hurt you. He messed up your head and made you afraid. But he could only reach so far. He couldn't touch the things that make you Blair Sandburg. And I hope nothing ever does."

Blue crystal eyes met his, sifting through his words, expressions chasing each other across Blair's face. "Jim, I'm not a kid. You can't protect me from the world."

"I'm not trying to, Chief," Jim replied. "Just from the worst of it."

Blair forced a smile. "I thought you were trying to toughen me up."

Jim's mouth twitched. "That, too."

Dr. Hawthorne took that as her cue. "Is there anything else you'd like to talk about regarding last night? Jim?"

I was terrified. I thought Blair was going to die. And that he didn't care. "No."

"Blair?"

"No. Not about last night. But there's something else I'd like to talk about."

"All right."

Blair glanced at Jim and away again just as quickly. "I'm still having trouble letting anyone touch me. Men, I mean."

Jim, he meant. Jim knew it. He remembered their first homework session, where he had admitted to missing the casual touches that were second-nature to him. Blair had brought this up for his sake.

Dr. Hawthorne focused on Blair alone. "Blair, that's perfectly understandable, and perfectly normal at this stage in your recovery. There are cases where a survivor of rape goes through the rest of his or her life never able to bear the touch of another human being. These are extreme cases, and from what you and Jim have told me, I don't think that will happen to you."

"How do you know?" Blair demanded, the stark need in his eyes excusing his tone. "If I still can't let anyone touch me, how do you know I'll get better?"

"You already have. On at least four separate occasions, you've allowed Jim to touch or hug you."

"Yeah," Jim said. "But Doc, it's only when Blair's so upset that he doesn't really know what's going on. The minute he starts to recover, he gets scared again, and I have to back off."

"Yes. When his memory of fear becomes stronger than the fear of the moment."

"So what do we do? Keep him scared all the time?"

"He already is, Jim." Ouch. Should've kept your mouth shut, Ellison. Bad jokes are Sandburg's department. Dr. Hawthorne turned back to Blair. "Blair, when you let Jim hold you, how do you feel?"

"Safe." Blair looked at the floor, his face going red. "Protected. Like--everything will be all right now, because Jim will take care of it. I know that's stupid, but..." He shrugged.

"I don't think it's so stupid," Jim said.

Blair flashed him a quick smile, and returned his gaze to the carpet.

"And when Jim touches you casually, or accidentally? How do you feel then?"

"Terrified. I have flashbacks. Ponytail's hands are on me, and I have to get away. I want to run, or scream. But I can't."

"If I asked Jim to touch you now, do you think you could handle it?"

Blair's heart started to pound. "I don't know."

"Would you like to try?"

Blair forced his eyes up. "Yes. I'll try."

"Good. Now, I'd like you and Jim to sit on the couch. Not too close, but not so far apart that you can't reach each other. Blair, we're going to use your relaxation techniques to make you as calm as possible before we begin. We won't use hypnosis. It's important that you be fully aware at all times. Jim, I want you to monitor Blair's heartbeat and respiration. You'll know when he's relaxed better than I will. All right?"

Blair closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply, slowly, drawing air in through his nose, letting it out of his mouth. Jim watched him carefully, focusing all his senses on the young man beside him. He felt the warmth of Blair's body, smelled the sweat that had begun to form when Dr. Hawthorne's suggestion brought fear, saw his muscles relaxing, heard Blair's heartbeat slow until it regained the rhythm he knew better than his own.

"He's relaxed," Jim said quietly.

"Blair, open your eyes."

He did, but he couldn't bring himself to look at Jim.

"Jim, I'd like you to touch Blair's arm, very lightly and only for a second. Blair, I want you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings when he does it, whatever they may be. All right?" Both men nodded. "Go ahead."

Jim reached toward Blair. The kid watched his hand like a rabbit caught in a snake's gaze, waiting for it to strike. His heart slammed in his chest, and Jim heard his breath stop.

"Blair?"

"It's okay, man," Blair gasped. "I'm okay."

Jim's fingers brushed his arm so lightly that he wasn't sure Blair had even felt it, until a shudder shook the slender body.

"Blair?" Dr. Hawthorne prodded.

"I'm fine. I--I don't know why I did that."

"Flashbacks?"

"Not when he touched me. Before."

"You're anticipating."

"Tell me about it," he muttered, then winced at his rudeness. "Sorry."

"It's all right. Let's try again. Jim, this time I'd like you to stay in contact with Blair for a few seconds."

"Doc, I don't know if this is such a good idea."

"It's okay, man," Blair insisted. "Go for it."

Again Jim reached for him. Blair tried to relax, but he tensed before Jim could touch him, and remained stiff for as long as Jim's fingers were on his arm. Jim gave his arm a gentle squeeze before drawing away. Blair's eyes flew up, locked on his.

"Do that again."

"Blair, all I'm doing is scaring you. This can wait."

"No, it can't."

"If you're doing this for me--"

"Hey, I need this too. Come on, Jim." Blair tried to smile. "I promise not to pass out."

Jim wasn't sure Blair could keep that promise. But he did as Blair wanted, and laid his hand on his partner's forearm, squeezing lightly. Blair's heart was still hammering. Jim started to withdraw, but Blair's hand came down over his, holding it in place.

"It's okay," Blair said. A smile flickered about his lips, then grew steady. "It's okay."

"Are you sure?" Jim demanded.

"Yes."

Blair withdrew his hand. After a moment, Jim released his arm and looked to Dr. Hawthorne. "I'd like to try something else."

"Go ahead." She smiled. "You're doing just fine."

He turned his gaze to Blair, waiting until the younger man's eyes found his once more. "Blair, if you want me to stop, you'll tell me, right?"

Blair nodded, his heart pounding so hard that Jim could practically see it through his shirt. He breathed deeply in an effort to calm himself and watched as Jim's hand rose, moving toward him. He shifted his gaze to Jim's face, and Jim met the wide blue eyes, trying without words to impart reassurance and safety. His hand reached its goal: he grasped Blair's shoulder, fingers pressing just firmly enough to let Blair know he was there, solid and real, for as long as Blair needed him. Panic washed over Blair's features, his heart thudding with dread. Just as suddenly, the panic was gone. Blair's heartbeat began to slow, to return to its normal rhythm. Eyes still locked with Jim's, he smiled. There was no fear or hesitation. It was Blair's old smile, the one that shouted "joy!" and "life!" as though they were the same thing, the one Jim hadn't seen since the night Ponytail did his best to destroy Blair's soul.

Though his own would never be as pure, Jim returned the smile. Blair laughed, and threw his arms around Jim, squeezing as hard as he could. Startled, Jim glanced at Dr. Hawthorne and surprised her surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes. Jim grinned at her, and put his arms around Blair, holding his partner far more gently than Blair was holding him. That was okay; he could go without breathing for a while. But something was making his vision blur. Jim lifted a hand to rub his eyes, then used it to pat Blair's back. He felt kind of awkward, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Blair pulled back finally, looking up at him, his own eyes wet. "Sorry, man."

Jim glared. "You'd better not be."

A smile tugged at the corner's of Blair's mouth. "Okay, I lied." Both eyebrows shot up. "Jim, were you crying?"

"Of course not," Jim replied stiffly. "I told you, crying's for sissies."

"And wimps," Blair said. "Don't forget wimps."

"Goes without saying."

"So, I guess I know where you stand, huh?"

"I guess you do." Jim glowered at him. "And don't you forget it, Sandburg."

"No, sir, Detective Ellison. I won't, sir."

"Wiseass," Jim growled. He cuffed Blair gently on the side of the head.

"Yes, sir." Blair grinned broadly. "That's me, sir."

End Part 26

Part 27