Masks: Part 7

Blair set the mask down in the center of the table, handling it gently. That alone told Jim it must be pretty valuable. Or at least, Blair thought it was. Dumping his pack in one of the chairs, Blair tossed his jacket to Jim, who hung it on one of the hooks by the door. When Jim turned around, Blair was heading for his room.

"How about some dinner?" Jim called after him.

"No, thanks," Blair answered without pausing. "I'm not hungry."

"You didn't have any lunch."

Blair ignored him.

"Isn't that weird show you like on now?"

Blair stopped, finally. "No, they moved it to Sundays, and replaced it with Serial Killer of the Week." He grimaced. "Not my idea of a good time."

"Mine either. Maybe there's a game on? We could nuke some popcorn...?"

"Jim, there's always a game on somewhere." Blair glanced toward the living room, and away again. "Maybe tomorrow, okay? I'm really wiped."

"Okay, Partner."

Blair went into his room and closed the door. Jim shook his head, staring at the double door he'd put up while Blair was at St. Sebastian's, to give his partner more privacy. The door wasn't the only thing he'd done. He'd painted, replaced the carpet, bought some new furniture, even added brightly-colored throws and pillows. Carolyn had helped him with it. He was no decorator, or so she'd declared when she saw the green paint he'd used in the kitchen. He hadn't cared. All he'd wanted was to change the place as much as he could, so that Blair wouldn't be reminded of what had happened to him here. It hadn't helped. Blair hadn't set foot in the living room since he came home. He even avoided looking in that direction. Jim couldn't blame him. Standing there, his own eyes went unerringly to the spot on the floor where he'd found Blair's blood on the night of the attack. There was nothing to see now, of course, but he knew it had been there. And if he couldn't forget, how could he expect it of Blair?

The light in Blair's room snapped off. In a few minutes, his breathing changed to the deep, regular rhythm of sleep. Not wanting to do anything that might wake his partner, Jim made himself a sandwich, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and took it upstairs to eat. He listened to a Santana tape for a while, the volume so low that no one else would have known it was on, then went to bed himself. When Blair began to scream, he shook the younger man awake, and stayed with him until he fell asleep again.

"So, what've you got, Sandburg?"

"Just a sec, Captain."

Blair laid the mask on the table in Simon's office, and started pulling things out of his pack. Various tools, books, a magnifying glass, and a sheaf of notes appeared, set out in no order that Jim could see, but that seemed to make perfect sense to Blair. The grad student had spent ten hours on Saturday examining the mask, stopping only when Jim dragged him from the loft to go out for pizza. He'd taken samples of paint and grass, done tests on them with different chemicals, checked every single carving mark with the magnifying glass, flipped through books, and scribbled notes. Jim had never seen him work like that before, on something in his own field. Except for the rare experiment he could talk Jim into trying, Blair generally did his thesis work alone in his room or at the U. Seeing him so focused, for so long, was an experience he wished Simon could have shared, if only to show the Captain what Blair was really capable of doing.

Blair put his glasses on and grabbed his notes. "Okay, Captain, I won't give you the details--unless you want me to?" Blair raised his eyebrows, peering over his glasses at Simon, who shook his head emphatically. "Right. As near as I can determine, the mask is late 18th century, made during a period of famine that lasted about five years and reduced the tribe by two-thirds. It's meant to represent a starving woman in a ceremony that's an appeal to the gods for relief."

"So it's real."

"Yes, sir."

"What's it worth?"

"About fifty-thousand dollars. Not enough to kill someone for."

"You'd be surprised what people will kill for, Sandburg. Is there anything unusual about the mask, anything that would be worth killing for?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't think so, Simon. There are dozens of these, maybe hundreds, scattered all over the world. Most are in museums, but some are held by private collectors like Wainwright. They're not rare enough for the government to restrict export."

Simon frowned. "What about the religious aspect? You said these masks are sacred, that someone might be trying to get them back."

"I don't know, Captain. This particular mask just isn't that important. I don't see why anyone would kill for it."

"What if it isn't the mask itself? What if there's something inside it?"

"Sandburg thought of that, Simon," Jim said. "We checked it yesterday. Except for the decorations, the mask's all one piece, and solid. There's no place to hide anything."

"So we're back to square one."

"Looks like it, sir."

Simon reached behind and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Jim, this mask theory isn't working out. You'd better start looking into other motives for Hatch's murder."

He'd known this was coming. Jim started to voice his arguments. "Simon, I really think--"

The phone rang. Holding up one hand to forestall Jim, Simon picked it up. "Banks." He listened for a second. "What?" A few more seconds. "Oh. All right, Rhonda, put it through."

Simon held the receiver out to Blair. "It's for you, Sandburg. Alice Hawthorne."

Blair went absolutely still, staring at the receiver like it was a snake about to strike. He jerked into motion, pushing his chair back, standing slowly, moving toward Simon's desk like a sleepwalker. He took the receiver with a trembling hand and raised it to his ear.


Jim turned his hearing down. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't eavesdrop on Dr. Hawthorne's end of the conversation. It wouldn't be right. Blair was pale, and swaying. It wouldn't take much more than a breeze to knock him over.

"Um, yeah. Uh--thanks. I will. Bye."

Blair hung up the phone, kept his hand and eyes on it for a minute. He took a deep, shaky breath, glanced up at the ceiling, around the room, anywhere but at Jim or Simon. Simon stood up.

"Are you all right, Sandburg?"

"Yeah." Blair pushed the hair back from his face. "Um, excuse me, I'll..."

Blair rushed out of the office, through the bullpen into the hall. Jim started after him, but Simon caught his arm.

"Maybe you should let him go."

Jim shook free. "Not this time, Simon."

He left Simon's office, hearing the men's room door close. At least Blair hadn't gone far. Jim made his way through the squadroom to the hall, and stopped outside the men's room, schooling his features into a calm mask. He didn't feel calm, but if he looked it, he might be able to fool Blair. Fortunately, the Guide couldn't hear the Sentinel's heartbeat. Jim pushed the door open.

Blair stood at the opposite end of the room, hunched into himself, facing the corner. Oh, God, what had Dr. Hawthorne told him? Jim advanced into the room. Blair knew he was there, but the younger man didn't turn around. Knowing Blair would tense up if he got too close, Jim stopped just out of reach. He tried to keep his tone light.

"Hey, Partner. Are you okay?"

Blair wrapped his arms more tightly around himself. "I'm fine."

"What did the doctor say?"

"She--um--she had the results of the blood test."

He had to stay calm. For Blair. "And?"

"And they're negative. No--no STD's. I'm fine."

Jim let out the breath he'd been holding. "Thank God."

"Yeah. I'm--um--really happy about it."

"Then what's wrong?"

"Nothing. Everything's great. Really. Just--just--"

Blair's shoulders began to shake. Oh God, he was crying, so hard that he could barely stay on his feet. Jim instinctively reached for him, and hesitated, unsure of Blair's reaction. He didn't want to make things worse. But he couldn't just stand here and watch Blair cry. Slowly, so slowly that it almost seemed unreal, he reached out and turned the slender body around, gathering Blair to him like a child. To his amazement, Blair didn't resist. His hands fisted in Jim's sweater, and Blair clung to him, sobbing, his whole body trembling.

"Oh God--Jim." He forced the words. "I thought--I thought I could han--handle it. But I--I was--so--scared."

"Me, too, Partner," Jim said softly. "Me, too."

"I'm s--sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for."

"But I--I--c--can't--"

"Shut up, Sandburg."

Blair punched his chest, but there was no force behind the blow and Jim barely felt it. "Shit."

Jim smiled. "That you can say?"

They stood that way, Blair's sobs gradually fading, until the door opened and Martin Ballard walked in. Ballard stopped dead when he saw them, his mouth dropping open. After a moment, a nasty grin spread across his face. "Sorry, Ellison."

Blair tore free of Jim as though he'd turned to fire, flinging himself across the room. Jim glared at Ballard, and the man backed out of the bathroom, still grinning. Blair fixed his gaze on the floor, his face crimson.

"Shit!" Blair's fist slammed into the wall. "I'm sorry, man."

"What for?"

Blair gestured toward the door. "For that. He'll--tell everyone."


"So?" Blair gave him an incredulous stare, tears still standing in the clear blue eyes. "Don't you get it, Jim? He's gonna tell them we're gay."

"He's been saying that for months."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"What for? Ballard's an asshole. Nobody listens to him."

"Some people do," Blair muttered.

"Then they're assholes. Sandburg, don't worry about it."

"Don't you care what people think of you?"

"No. And since when do you?"

"I have to."


"Because of what--what happened. People think that I--that I brought it on myself. That I was asking for it."

"Who thinks that?"


"You know that's not true."

"Do I?"

"Of course you do! Blair, Ponytail didn't attack you because he thought you were gay, he did it to hurt you. And to drive you away from me. You know that."

"I--I guess so."

"You guess?"

"Jim, I--" Blair turned away. "You don't understand."

"No. I don't. But I want to." Jim looked around the men's room. "This isn't the best place to talk--too many interruptions. How about we go to lunch?"

"Now? Jim, it's ten o'clock in the morning."

"Okay, later. Or we'll go for dinner. Or when we get out of here, we'll just go home. I don't care where, but we're going to talk."

Blair wouldn't look at him. "I don't--I don't think I can."

That hit him. He knew it shouldn't, that Blair probably just needed more time, more something, but he couldn't help it. "Blair, I'm your partner. If you can't talk to me, we're in trouble."

A whisper. "I'm sorry."

Damn. Jim ran a hand through his hair. This wasn't right. Blair had been through hell, and he was sulking because the kid couldn't talk to him? What the hell was wrong with him? He lifted a hand toward Blair's shoulder, but Blair must have seen it in the mirror. He flinched, and Jim lowered his hand.

"It's okay, Partner. Whenever you're ready."

"Thanks, Jim. I wish--"


Blair shook his head. "Never mind." He faced Jim with a forced smile. "We'd better get back to work, or Simon'll think we skipped out."

Jim answered his smile, and started for the door, Blair behind him.



"I'll have to get tested again."

"I know."

"I can't guarantee that I won't--y'know--do this again."

"If you do," Jim said. "I'll be here."

Blair's eyebrows flew up. "In the men's room?"

A swat was called for, but Jim settled for a growl. "Get back to work, Sandburg."

He was crying, sobbing like a baby and he felt so stupid, but he couldn't stop, no matter how hard he tried. Jim's arms went around him, pulling him close. He was afraid for a second, but the fear washed away, and he grabbed on to Jim's sweater, letting Jim hold him while he cried. He didn't have much choice. Without Jim's support, his legs would give out and he'd be on the floor. But Jim wouldn't let him fall.

"Sorry, Ellison."

Shit, Ballard! He tried to break free, but Jim wouldn't let go. The arms tightened around him, crushing him so that he couldn't breathe; he fought to get away, but Jim just laughed and slid one hand down to his ass.

"Don't!" he cried. "Please, Jim!"

"Now, I know you don't mean that, Chief. You want this as much as I do. Even Ballard knows that."

"No! Ballard, help me!"

Ballard shook his head, grinning. "You're getting just what you deserve, you little Jew-boy faggot."

Laughing at his struggles, Jim ripped his pants open and shoved him against the wall. The massive body crowded close, one hand coming up to caress his cheek and thread through his hair.

"Please don't," he begged. "Please!"

Jim's fingers tangled in his hair, holding him still. He stared into eyes that were first blue, then brown, then blue again, but always, always cruel. Jim's head bent down toward him, and he struck out blindly.

"Ow! Sandburg!"

Jim caught his wrist in an iron grip.

"Let go! Let me go!"

The grip loosened. Blair twisted free and lunged across the bed, putting as much distance between them as the room would allow.

"Get away from me! Leave me alone!"

"Blair, it's okay, it's Jim."

"I know who you are! I--"

He saw then, really saw: Jim standing by the bed, one hand covering his right eye, the other held out toward him. Jim, not the nightmare. What had he done?

Blair started toward the bigger man, and stopped. "Jim, I'm so sorry."

"Don't worry about it, Sandburg."

"But I hit you! I could've--"

"I said, don't worry about it!" Jim snapped.

Blair stepped back, feeling the blood drain from his face. Jim turned his back on him. Oh, God, this was it. Jim had finally lost patience with him. He wanted to run, but there was no place to go. Left without an escape, he waited for Jim's anger to hit. He started to shake, and couldn't stop.

Jim's hand left his eye and passed through his hair. He sighed, and faced Blair again. "This has got to stop, Sandburg. We can't keep doing this every night."

"I know." Blair could hardly hear his own voice. "I'll start packing."


"I'll start--"

"I heard you, Sandburg. What the hell are you talking about?"

"Moving out. That's--what you want. Isn't it?"

"No, that's not what I want!" Blair flinched, and cursed himself. In the pre-dawn light, Jim's eyes were ice-pale. "Is that what you want?"

He wanted to lie, to make it easy for Jim, but he couldn't get the words out, he didn't have the courage. Blair shook his head. Jim eyed him again.

"You're shivering. Get back in bed."

Blair did as he was told. Let Jim think he was cold. It was better that way. Jim sat down on the foot of the bed. Blair could see the muscle jumping in his jaw.

"What I want," Jim said. "Is for the nightmares to stop. What I want is for you to stop being afraid of me."

"I'm not--"

Jim held up his hand. "Don't even start, Sandburg. You can tell other people anything you want, but don't lie to me. If I come near you, you back away. If I raise my voice, you flinch. I can see the fear in your eyes, Blair. You think I'm going to hurt you."

"No, Jim."

"Yes, you do."

"No! I know you won't, I just--" He didn't know what to say, how to explain. "I'm sorry, Jim. I can't help it."

"I know. But Blair, we've got to do something. If being around me is making you afraid--"

"It isn't you, Jim. I swear it isn't." He raised his eyes to Jim's. "Don't make me leave."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Yes, you would. You sent me to St. Sebastian's."

"You wanted to go."

"But it was your idea. And if you thought it would help me, you'd do it again. To a hotel, or another apartment, wherever. But it wouldn't help me, Jim. This is where I need to be. If I can't stay here, with you, if I leave--then I'll never get any better."

"You know that, huh?"

"Yes. I do."

He'd put as much conviction into his voice as he could. Jim studied him for a minute, and he tried his best to meet the older man's gaze steadily. At last, Jim shook his head.

"All right, Partner. If you're sure this is what you want."

"I'm sure."

"Have you told Dr. Hawthorne about all this?"

Blair grabbed the notebook from the nightstand. "That's what the journal is for."

Jim stood and stretched. "I'm going back to bed. Don't stay up writing in that thing too long."

"I won't."

As soon as Jim closed the door, Blair began to write. When he started to shiver with cold, he left the bed, found Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt where he'd dropped it on the floor, and pulled it on. He crawled back into bed and picked up the pen, but he hadn't written more than a few lines before his eyes started to close and the pen became too heavy to move. Blair slid down under the covers, and fell asleep with the notebook on his chest.


End Part 7

Part 8