Masks: Part 8

The buzz of the alarm startled him awake. Blair slapped it off and buried his head in the pillow, waiting for his heart to slow down. He hated alarm clocks. Being scared awake was a really, really lousy idea, and whoever had thought of it was a sadist. Probably a rich sadist.

Okay, he'd set the damn thing, so there must be a reason why he had to get up. What day was it? It was day? Blair turned his head so one eye could look out. Yup, that was daylight. Okay, so it was...Tuesday. Right. What did Tuesday mean? School. Midterm. That was it. He had to give the midterm today. Blair groaned. Couldn't he just flunk 'em all and be done with it? Or give 'em all A's, he didn't care which. He'd do either, for an extra hour's sleep right now.

He hadn't realized the shower was running until he heard it shut off. Screw the midterm. If Jim had used all the hot water, he wasn't getting up. Not that Jim would use it all. It took Jim all of thirty seconds to wash that fuzz he called hair, he could be out of the shower in under five minutes. Some people had real hair to wash, but some other people didn't understand that, and spent all their time complaining about how long the first people spent in the shower, which wasn't fair, and why should he get up anyway?

Blair heard the bathroom door open, and cracked one eyelid far enough to see Jim go by. If he didn't get up soon, Jim would start nagging him. He didn't need that this morning. He'd had a mother, thank you, and one was enough. More than enough. A partner wasn't supposed to act like a guy's mother, and neither was a Sentinel. A Sentinel was supposed to--

"Sandburg!"

"I'm up!"

"You're not moving."

"Doesn't prove a thing," he said into the pillow. Groaning again, Blair pushed himself off the bed. The floor was cold to his bare feet, and he cursed softly, making his way out of his room, down the hall to the now-vacant bathroom. Steam hung in the air from Jim's shower, fogging up the mirror. Blair turned the water on, stripped off the sweatshirt and his boxers, and stepped into the shower.

He'd just finished rinsing the shampoo out of his hair when a door slammed. The sound sent a chill through him, and he froze, remembering a softer sound, dismissed as nothing until a hand closed around his wrist and yanked him out of the shower.

"Jim?"

No answer. But Jim should be able to hear him. Heart pounding, Blair shut the water off. "Jim?"

Nothing. No other sound. Trembling, Blair pushed the curtain aside. He was alone in the bathroom. He stepped out of the tub, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

Ponytail threw him against the door and pressed up against him. He fought, but the bigger man pinned his wrists above his head with one hand, took him by the hair and banged his head into the door.

No! Blair jerked his head aside, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. That had happened more than two months ago, at Simon's apartment, not here. Ponytail was gone, the feds had taken him away, he was never coming back. Jim said so, and he knew it was true. He knew it, but he couldn't stop the trembling, or the nausea that knotted his stomach; he couldn't make his breath come any easier.

He started to call Jim's name again, and stopped. Ponytail wasn't out there. But someone else might be, some criminal who had a grudge against Jim, or who wanted to stop an investigation because Jim was getting too close. Jim would have answered him before, if he could.

Blair pressed his ear to the door, listening. He couldn't hear anything; there was no sound at all. Was someone waiting for him out there? Were they gone? Where was Jim? Was he hiding somewhere, or hurt? Maybe-- No. Not that, he wouldn't think of that. But he had to know. He couldn't just stay in here. If someone was in the loft, they'd find him eventually. He grasped the doorknob, but couldn't turn it. He couldn't move. He couldn't go out there. He couldn't.

Closing his eyes, Blair leaned his forehead against the door, fighting to breathe. He had to do this. He had to find out if someone was in the loft, if Jim was okay. If Jim was hurt, and he did nothing...

Slowly, he turned the doorknob, careful to make as little sound as possible. The door opened, and he looked out. He could see no one in the hall, or by his room. Slipping out, he padded down the hall, his bare feet inaudible to anyone but a Sentinel. At the corner, he flattened himself against the wall and peered out at the kitchen area. No one. No one in the living room, or on the balcony. Upstairs? God, how could he get a look without being seen? He had to try. He had to try now.

Blair ducked, heading for the kitchen, intending to hide behind the counter. The front door rattled, and his body turned to ice. Paralyzed, his heart slamming in his chest, he watched the door swing open.

Ponytail walked in, tossed his keys on the table. He shut the door, and smiled. "I've missed your ass, Chief."

Oh God. Oh God, no.

"Sandburg?"

Jim. It was Jim, not Ponytail, Jim, plastic bag in one hand, bruises around one eye, staring at him in mild surprise. His frozen limbs melted, leaving him legs made of water. Blair collapsed against the counter, holding on hard to keep from falling. Jim put the bag down and came toward him, stopped a yard away when Blair looked up. He could only imagine the expression that must be on his face.

"Are you all right?" Jim demanded. "Did something happen?"

Blair shook his head. "God, Jim, I thought--heard--I--" Calm down, Sandburg. Breathe. Just breathe. "I heard the door slam. I thought--God, I panicked." His face was burning. "I'm sorry, man. I'm an idiot."

Jim's hands were fists at his sides, white-knuckled. "Blair, I'm sorry. I spilled the damned milk, and got mad at myself. I shouldn't have slammed the door. I should've told you I was going out to get more. I'm the idiot here, not you."

"No, man, I--" Blair shoved his dripping hair back, trying to remember what normal breathing was like. He was so tired of these endless rounds of apologies. "Look, Jim, no big deal. I overreacted. Let's just--let's just forget it. Okay?"

Jim looked at him, saying nothing. Blair waited. If he had to, he'd add a "please" and do the eye-thing. Jim couldn't handle that. He hated to consciously manipulate his friend, but there was no way he could go through all this again. C'mon, Jim. Give in.

"Sure, Partner." Jim took off his jacket, hung it up, grabbed the milk. "Go and get dressed. Breakfast in ten."

Trying to hide his relief, Blair pushed off the counter and went back to the bathroom to shave.





Blair glanced up, surveying the lecture hall before returning his gaze to his own notebook. Everything looked okay. Of the sixty-seven students, most were scribbling furiously in their bluebooks. A few were staring blankly into space, but he hoped those were just thinking and not hopelessly lost. The test wasn't all that hard. He was trying to go easy on them because they'd had to adjust to two different teachers, each with his own style, and that could throw people off. He wished he could have made the test multiple choice rather than essay. Multiple choice was so much easier to grade. You just checked them off, right or wrong, no could be or maybe or well I suppose, added them up and that was that, ten minutes per test and you were done in twelve hours, no problem. With essays, you had to wade through the repetitive bullshit looking for the maybe five percent of each that actually said something, and then determine whether that five percent made any sense at all, and if so, just how much. Plus, you had the added bonus of trying to read the handwriting. At least they weren't expecting them back on Thursday. There was no way he could get through all of them by then, even if he pulled all-nighters and never stopped to eat. But he would have to have them done by Tuesday, and he had a paper of his own due then. Fortunately, he already had the groundwork laid for that one. He was using Wainwright's Mombatu mask as the subject. All he had to do was organize his notes and put them all into anthro-speak. In fact, he expected to get the outline done now, while his students were taking the midterm. Two hours should be more than enough for that.

Except that he couldn't concentrate. He couldn't get the last five hours out of his mind. The nightmare, hitting Jim--hitting him! God, no matter what Jim said, he might have really hurt him--then practically begging Jim not to make him leave. He shouldn't have done that. If Jim would be more comfortable without him there, then he should just go. Jim had insisted that he didn't want him to go, but had he really meant it? Or was he just trying, again, to spare Blair's feelings? He was ashamed of his behavior. He knew Jim didn't want to hurt him, and he counted on that to get his way. It was wrong, but he'd still done it, and he knew he'd do it again.

God, he'd had better control of himself when his father threw him out! He hadn't begged, or pleaded. He hadn't even argued. He'd just gone. Maybe because he'd known it wouldn't be any use, that his father didn't care what happened to him. Jim cared. And Blair was using him because of it, manipulating him. He almost wished that Jim had demanded to know why he'd freaked out this morning. He wished he could tell Jim what he'd seen and heard, how real it had been, how scared--how scared he still was. But Jim had taken the blame on himself, and let Blair put him off, and Blair had been so relieved, then. He shouldn't have done it. He should have been honest with Jim. Jim deserved that.

But how could he? How could he tell Jim that he hadn't seen him at all when the door opened, that he'd seen Ponytail, heard him, and believed it was real, that it was somehow all happening again? Jim knew about the flashbacks, but the detective had no idea what they were like, how real they were, how he could still hear Ponytail's voice whispering in his ear, still feel the man's rough hands on his face and body, still feel his-- No. God, don't think about that. Don't. Think about the paper, the mask, the outline. Write the outline.

He couldn't write. His hand was shaking too much, and he was breathing too fast. God, not another anxiety attack, not here. Not in front of his students. Blair put the pen down, and flattened his hands on the table. Closing his eyes, he drew in a deep, shaky breath and let it out through his mouth as slowly as he could. His heart pounded in his chest, so hard that it hurt.

"Your heartbeat's real fast, Chief. Are you scared? Or excited?"

No! God, don't do this, not now. Calm down. Breathe. Visualize the mask: the age-darkened wood polished by two hundred years of handling; the dried-grass fringe, so fragile that a careless touch could crumble it; the faded paint, red from fruit and flowers, yellow from clay. Think of the mask, nothing else. See only the mask.

The man wearing Jim's face unzipped his jeans. "I'm excited."

No. God, no, he had to get away. Ponytail reached for him, grabbed his arm, and he flung himself away. "No!"

"Mr. Sandburg?"

Two faces: one Jim's, but not Jim's; the other thin, crowned by blond waves of hair, mouth open in astonishment. He looked away, fighting to breathe, to calm himself. Took off his glasses and ground the heel of his hand into first one eye, then the other. Forced himself to look again. Only one face now, the thin face. One of his students: Joshua...Something. Staring at him. They were all staring at him, pens frozen in their hands, tests forgotten. Oh, God, he'd been so afraid of this.

Blair pushed the hair out of his face, and tried to smile. "Sorry, man, you--uh--startled me. I was...someplace else."

Joshua nodded, mouth still open.

"So, did you have a question or something?"

Joshua blinked, and shut his mouth. "Uh--yeah. On question three, I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for."

Blair nodded, casting a quick glance at the other students. They were all looking down at their books, most of them writing again. Blair sat down, and picked up his copy of the test, hoping Joshua wouldn't see that his hands were still shaking.

"Okay, Josh, what I'm after here is...."





Blair paced the waiting room, hands jerking, gesturing, pushing his hair back, going to his mouth, in and out of his pockets. His breathing was too fast, and his heart was pounding, and if he didn't get in to see Dr. Hawthorne soon, he knew he'd be gone, out of there, and he'd never come back. Never to her office, never to the station, the U, or the loft. He couldn't do this anymore, he couldn't stand it. He didn't know how he'd gotten through the afternoon, and right now he had no idea how he was going to get through the rest of his life. Life. Huh. What life? He didn't have a life, he had a mess. He'd had a life once, or something that was starting to resemble one. But Ponytail had taken that away. Just--taken it, as if he had a right to, because he was bigger, stronger. Because he could. And no one noticed. Everyone thought that Blair still had his life, that nothing had changed except what was inside his head. But they were wrong. It was gone, all of it. Gone. He couldn't work, at the station or at the university. He couldn't concentrate, he couldn't get Ponytail out of his mind--God, he'd freaked out in front of his class! How could he pretend to be any kind of teacher when he couldn't even be sure if what he was seeing was real or a flashback? He couldn't date. He didn't know if he could touch a woman, never mind go any further, and no woman would want him, if she knew. He couldn't stay at the loft. He couldn't--physically could not--go into the living room, no matter how hard he tried. His muscles froze, and his brain locked, and all he could see was Jim's face above him, staring at him with cold hatred that turned to something else, something worse. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat, he couldn't form a coherent sentence. And he couldn't stand to be near Jim.

He wanted so much. He wanted things to be the way they'd been before. He wanted to be comfortable with Jim, to know without having to think that Jim was his friend, that Jim would never hurt him. He wanted Jim to be easy with him and not walking on eggshells all the time. He wanted Jim to pat his back, or put a hand on his shoulder, or grab his arm. He wanted Jim to call him "Chief", and he wanted to be able to hear it without hearing the echo of Ponytail's voice. He wanted not to hurt Jim anymore by flinching or shying away or losing control. He wanted not to be afraid.

But he was afraid, every moment that he was awake, and God knew, even while he slept. Afraid of it happening again. Afraid that Ponytail would escape, or the feds would let him out, and he'd come back, and how would they ever know? Ponytail could be anyone, anyone, and there was no way to tell, nothing that gave him away. At least, nothing that a non-Sentinel could recognize. And if it wasn't Ponytail, it could be someone else. Someone else who knew that Blair Sandburg was an easy target, that he could be used against Jim, that he could be used any way they wanted. Jim couldn't protect him, and he couldn't protect himself. Lash had broken in and taken him, so had Ponytail. Anyone could. Anyone could just take him, and do what they wanted to him, and there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing!

The office door opened. Dr. Hawthorne stepped out, looked automatically to the chair where he usually sat to wait, saw only his pack, then found him at the opposite end of the room. "Blair. What's the matter?"

She wanted direct? Okay, he'd be direct. Blair crossed the room, grabbed his pack and went past her into the office. He dumped the pack down beside a chair, and kept going, never slowing down. Dr. Hawthorne closed the door, watching him.

"I can't stand it!" he blurted. "I can't do this anymore, I hate it! I hate being afraid all the time, I hate the anxiety attacks, the nightmares, the flashbacks! I hate being afraid of Jim! I--" He stopped, not looking at her, not looking at anything. He pushed his hair back with both hands, holding either side of his head. "I think I'm losing my mind."

"Why do you think that?"

"I just told you! Weren't you listening? Don't you listen to me at all?"

"I heard you," Dr. Hawthorne said quietly. "Blair, we've talked about this. Everything you described is normal."

"But it's getting worse! I--I lost it in front of my class today. And this morning--"

"Yes? What happened this morning?"

"I had another flashback. A bad one. I--God, I thought it was real! I was terrified. But that's not the worst."

Dr. Hawthorne said nothing, waiting.

"I hit Jim. He was trying to wake me up from a nightmare, and I hit him. What if I'd really hurt him?"

"Do you think you could?"

"If he wasn't expecting it. He told me to forget it, but he was mad. He's not going to put up with me much longer."

"What do you think he'll do?"

"Throw me out."

"Has he told you that?"

"No. But what else can he do? He can't live with a headcase who screams all night, and he can't work with a partner who could freak out at any moment. It's not fair to him."

"Do you want to leave?"

Blair glanced at the doctor, and away again, studying a shrivelled leaf on one of her plants. "I don't know. I don't know what I want. I don't know what's right. Sometimes--I'm so afraid to be there. And other times, I'm afraid to be anywhere else. This morning, I told Jim that I had to stay, or I wouldn't get better."

"Was that the truth?"

"I believed it when I said it. Now--I don't know. Maybe I just--maybe--" He ripped the dead leaf off the plant. "God, I don't even know what I'm saying! I don't know what to do. I can't live like this."

Dr. Hawthorne came toward him and put a hand on his sleeve. "Blair, come and sit down."

He met the warm brown gaze, and hesitated. She gave him a small smile.

"Come on. Take your coat off and sit. It's okay. The tea's brewed by now, I'll go get it. You just sit for a minute."

Blair nodded, and did as she asked. A tape was playing, something with flutes, and harps, and running water. He closed his eyes, listening, and tried to let the music's tranquility seep into him. It helped, a little. Enough. When Dr. Hawthorne came back, he knew what he wanted to say. She handed him a cup, and he cradled it between his hands, treasuring the warmth. He didn't wait for her to prompt him.

"Dr. Hawthorne, you said if I told you about--what happened, that I'd start to heal."

"Yes. That's true."

Blair nodded, affirming what he was about to say as much as her words. "I want to do it. Now."

"All right."

"It might--it might take a while."

"Don't worry about that. You're my last appointment. We have as much time as we need." She pressed a button on a console beside her chair. "I'm going to record what you say. Are you okay with that, Blair?"

He bit his lip. "I guess so."

"Fine. Whenever you're ready, Blair."

Blair gulped his tea down, leaned forward to pour himself some more, and sat back. Keeping his eyes on the green cup, on the amber-colored liquid it contained, and on the steam curling from it, he began to speak. He told her everything, beginning at the moment Ponytail's pounding on the loft door shocked him from his dream. Every word the man had said, every blow, every rough caress was branded into his memory, and it all came out, as it would not when he had told Jim and Simon. It made him sick to tell it. He shook, and he cried, and his face burned with shame, and more than once he had to stop, to compose himself or try to find breath to continue. But he told it all.

"Then I--I don't remember much, for a while. I guess--I guess I was in shock. I remember being cold, and hurting. And then--there were arms around me, and I wasn't cold anymore, and I felt--safe. And there was a voice saying--um--'It's okay, kid.' Next thing I knew, there was a blanket around me, and Jim was telling me another ambulance was on its way. When it showed up, we went to the hospital. They stitched Jim's side up and put me in overnight. Jim stayed the whole time. I was tranked, and wouldn't have known the difference if he'd gone home. But he stayed."

"He's a good friend," Dr. Hawthorne said, and he knew those were the first words she'd spoken in a long time.

"Yeah." Blair cleared his throat. "He is. Better than I deserve."

"Why do you say that?"

Blair wiped his eyes, and looked around, realizing only now that he was sitting on the couch, Dr. Hawthorne beside him, and that her arm was around his shoulders. He was exhausted, drained. Dr. Hawthorne handed him a kleenex; he blew his nose, and wiped his eyes again. There was a dark spot on the front of Dr. Hawthorne's pale gray jacket.

"Oh, geez, I'm sorry," he said. "Did I ruin your suit?"

"No." She squeezed his shoulder. "A little salt water won't hurt it. Now answer my question."

"Jim's done so much for me. He lets me work with him, he gave me a place to live. He's got these stupid house rules, but he never yells at me when I screw up, and he puts up with all my questions."

"I imagine you have a lot of them."

He smiled a little. "Oh yeah. I can be a major pain in the ass. But it doesn't faze him. Nothing fazes him, he's the proverbial rock. He's saved my life more times than I want to think about."

"But isn't it true that you wouldn't be in these dangerous situations in the first place if you weren't working with Jim?"

"Well, yeah, but that's not the point. The point is, he's done all this stuff for me, and I repay him by being afraid of him and punching him in the eye when he tries to help me."

"How are you with other men?"

"Huh?"

"Are you comfortable around other men?"

"Um--no. I get--really nervous. Even with Simon, if he gets too close."

"Then it isn't just Jim, is it?"

"No. But it's worse with him. I mean, sometimes, I'm okay. Like, when you called yesterday about the blood test. I lost it. I mean, I was really crying, you know? Almost hysterical. Jim--held me while I cried, like I was a little kid or something. And I felt safe, like I did--like I did in the attic."

"You know that it was Jim who put his arms around you in the attic?"

"Oh. Yeah. I guess I always did, I just--" Blair shrugged. "Anyway, I was okay then. But it didn't last. I went right back to cringing if he so much as made a move toward me. And I'm still having nightmares."

"You will, for a while. The attacks--"

"But they're not about the attacks! Well--they are, but--but it's--" He forced the words through his shame. "It's Jim who's attacking me."

"Do you believe that Jim would attack you?"

"Of course not!" Blair looked away. "Not consciously. But if I'm dreaming about it, doesn't that mean that I do believe it, subconsciously?"

"Not necessarily, Blair. Nightmares spring from our fears, not from our beliefs. And for you, for a time, that fear was true. Your eyes and ears told you that it was Jim who had beaten and raped you, and you had no reason to believe otherwise. You know, now, that it was Ponytail and not Jim. But your mind remembers what it saw and heard."

"So, that's why I'm having these nightmares? Because, no matter what I know intellectually or emotionally, the physical evidence still says it was Jim?"

"Exactly. You're not responsible for your dreams, Blair. You must know that. Have you told Jim about them?"

"God, no. I couldn't."

"I think you should."

"I can't! He'll--He won't understand. He'll think I don't trust him."

"You think it would upset him?"

"I think he'd go ballistic."

Dr. Hawthorne thought for a moment. "What if you told him in a neutral setting, with a third party present?"

"You mean here? With you?"

She nodded. "A lot of what I hear from you tells me that the two of you are having trouble communicating. Mostly out of a desire to avoid hurting each other's feelings. It might help if Jim came with you next time, and you could talk to each other with the clear knowledge that what was said was the complete truth and was not intended to hurt. Would you like to ask Jim to come, or shall I call him?"

She wasn't giving him an out. Man, less than a dozen sessions and she already knew him too well. "I'll ask him. But I don't know if he'll do it. And I still don't know if I'll be able to tell him."

Dr. Hawthorne smiled and patted his hand. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll find the courage."

End Part 8

Part 9