He was having the dream again.
His eyes opened. It was blurry, as if he were underwater, and dark. Not completely dark, there were lights flickering in the distance, like a lightning storm at sea. Light enough for him to see by. There was something covering his mouth, like a scuba mask. He was naked, but not cold. Floating, suspended in a tank or pod of clear liquid that wasn't water. His arms, his chest, his legs, where he could see them, were pierced at regular intervals with cables, sockets erupting from his flesh like stalks of some parasitic plant, born of metal, not biology.
There was a flash, bright, and a crackling sound, like an electric discharge. But no pain. He realized the flashes were flickering, repeating, out there, outside of his... tank? pod? It was not boxy, not square as you would expect, but curved, like some techno-nightmare growth plucked from the dreams of H.R. Geiger; black below, transparent above, save for the struts and spars of its frame. There was nothing to see but darkness, and in the flashes, glimpses of other pods, above and to either side.
The loudest noise was the crackling of the lightning, but there were other noises: the gurgling of liquid circulating, the throb of pumps, the hum of machinery, the thump of other heartbeats, slow from sleep. His own heart, beating, rapid with fear.
At the same time, he knew he was asleep in bed. Wake up, he told himself. Nothing changed. If anything, his bed seemed farther away, the dream more real.
He wasn't sure what frightened him more: the incomprehensible sameness of it all, the darkness, the strangeness, or his feeling weak and helpless as a baby, trapped, with nowhere to go. The first time he'd had the dream, he hadn't been able to move at all. Every time he came back to this darkness, he tried a little harder, fought against it with more success. But it still scared the hell out of him.
A recurring dream was supposed to tell you something. But if this was a message, it was written in Greek. He should tell Sandburg. But he never remembered.
He tried again to wake up.
He was having the dream again.
It was one of his earliest nightmares; the dream of the Man Without A Face. He didn't have a face, so he would steal the faces of other people. If you drew attention to yourself, he would come after you. But if you conformed too much, that made it easier for him to steal your face. It was all mixed up with a story that Naomi used to tell him when he was a kid, a fairy tale, a legend, about the One, and the Two, and the battle for men's souls.
But right now he was trapped in the dream.
He was in the bullpen at Major Crimes, and two of the Men had come in. They were wearing suits, like Feds. They always wore the mask of authority - suits, uniforms, robes. And they were unbelievably precise.
They had come in, in to the bullpen, but they didn't see him. He hid under Jim's desk. Jim wasn't there. He peeked out. They were talking to Simon. Simon only saw the suits, he didn't see that the men had no faces. If he was really, really quiet, then maybe they wouldn't notice.
"Anyone seen Ellison?" Simon bellowed out.
His heart thundered. The Men hadn't come for him - this time. They were after Jim! Because he was a Sentinel. Because he was different. He had to distract them somehow, keep them away from Jim.
He stood up.
"Where is Ellison?"
He was standing against the wall, and the man with the borrowed face was glaring at him.
"We know you know where he is. If you just tell us, everything will be fine."
Simon was smiling and nodding like a brainwashed puppet.
"Can't you see what they are?" he cried. He reached out to the Man and ripped off the faceless mask. There was nothing behind it. He was hollow. Darkness and lightning, falling motes of dust, the smell of oil and hot metal.
"You shouldn't have done that," the Man said. The Man grabbed him by the throat with the smooth speed of a piston pumping and pinned him against the wall like a metal clamp. The gloved hand came up, and peeled off Blair's face. The skin dangled like a rubber mask. The man put it up to the space where his face had been, and smoothed it into place.
His own face stared back at him.
"Do I make a good you?" said the Man, in David Lash's voice.
Blair screamed silently.
Jim snapped awake, disoriented. What? He felt as if he'd fallen a long way - like Alice through the rabbit hole, with numbers and letters falling around him instead of playing cards - as if he should have landed in his bed with a thump. Thank God he was out of that nightmare. But what had woken him?
He heard it again. A stifled whimper, rapid breathing, from the room below. He sharpened his focus, and heard Blair's heart pounding as if he'd just run a marathon. In the middle of the night? Was there an intruder in the loft? He listened. No, no one but him and Blair.
Should he go down and check on Blair? He sounded scared shitless. Or would that only serve to embarrass him? Well, it wouldn't hurt to go and look, would it? Jim crept down the stairs in the dark, eyes dilating to take in the available light. He stepped up to Blair's door and hesitated.
"No!" Blair's voice, frightened.
That was invitation enough. He opened the door and looked around cautiously. Nothing seemed amiss. Blair was - Blair was asleep. Looked like he wasn't the only one suffering from nightmares. He sat on the edge of the bed and shook Blair awake.
"No!" Blair scrambled away from him, his heart an alarming thump-a-thump in the darkness.
"Blair, it's me, Jim!" He turned on the light, cursing his forgetfulness. Blair couldn't see him in the dark.
"Jim?" Blair blinked back at him in the sudden brightness. "Jim?" He scuttled forward and grabbed Jim's arm as if to prove to himself that Jim was solid and real. "It's really you."
"Why wouldn't it be?" Jim said. "It was just a nightmare, Chief, go back to sleep."
The fear returned to the back of Blair's eyes. "It was - the men. They were looking for you."
Jim realized that Blair was still only half-awake. "It's okay, Chief," he reassured him, patting Blair's arm. "I'm okay. Go back to sleep."
Blair settled back under the covers. "Sorry I woke you, Jim."
"Glad you did," Jim admitted. "I had a nightmare of my own."
Blair's eyes sparked. "Really? Tell me! It could be import -"
"In the morning, Chief. We'll talk in the morning."
Blair sighed and shut his eyes. "Okay Jim." He popped one eye open. "Jim would you mind if - Could you stay until I'm -"
"I'll stay," Jim reassured him, "until you're asleep."
Jim sat by the bed until he heard his partner's breathing even out into the slow steadiness of sleep.
Blair stared at Jim over his toast. "Enough procrastinating, Jim," he said. "You promised to talk in the morning. It's morning, you're washed, dressed and fed. Talk to me."
Jim sighed. He'd hoped that Blair would have forgotten. "It was just a nightm -"
"There is no 'just' about it, Jim," Blair interrupted. "You're a sentinel. Your dreams mean something."
"You know what happened when you didn't pay attention last time, when you didn't talk to me." The name lay unspoken between them. Alex Barnes.
"When we didn't talk to each other," Jim said, and sighed. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
Blair hesitated, then nodded. "Okay." He raised his eyebrows. "So what kind of a nightmare did I wake you from?"
"A weird one," Jim answered. "I wake up, somewhere dark..." Jim proceeded to describe his dream in all its strangeness. "And every time it's the same."
"Every time?" Blair repeated. "You mean you've had this dream before? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I never remembered," Jim said.
"A recurring dream of being trapped in a glass coffin," Blair mused. "Trapped and exposed..." He looked at Jim. "Is your subconscious telling you you're in a rut, you need to get a different job?"
"I don't think so, Sandburg," Jim growled.
Blair frowned. "It sounds vaguely familiar. Like I've seen it somewhere before."
"In a dream interpretation manual?"
Blair shook his head. "No, I don't think so." He tapped his finger against his chin. "Can I get back to you on that, Jim?"
"Sure, Sandburg." Jim collected their plates, dumped them in the sink, and returned to the table. "Now it's your turn. What kind of nightmare did I wake you from?"
Blair blushed. "It's stupid, really."
Jim shook his head. "Not something that scares you that badly. You dreamt that someone was after me?"
"I dreamt that the Men Without Faces had come for you," Blair said. "Because you were a sentinel. Special, not ordinary. I was in the bullpen and you weren't there, and they came in, looking for you, and Simon thought they were Feds and didn't do anything, and they wanted me to tell them where you were, and I wouldn't, and he pushed me against the wall and he took my face and turned into Lash," Blair said in one rush of breath.
Blair ran a hand through his hair. "I mean, I used to dream about them when I was a kid. Why would I be doing it now?"
"Well, I'd say drowning would make you remember near-drowning, wouldn't you?" Alex Barnes had drowned Blair in the fountain too recently to forget, and David Lash had kidnapped Blair with the aim of drowning him in a duckpond, after fixating on Blair and pretending to be him. It didn't seem unlikely that the two would be connected in Blair's nightmares.
Blair shook his head. "I'm not sure. I think... from where I was, the Lash thing was just the icing on the cake. It was the Men Without Faces I was really scared of, scared that they would get you."
"The Men Without Faces?"
"A story Naomi used to tell me as a kid. That nothing we can see is real, that the world is a prison run by the Men Without Faces. They steal people's faces, and they always wear suits, kind of like the Grey Men in Michael Ende's "Momo." I wonder if Ende knew the same stories? Parasitic men in suits..."
"Well, that's a different twist on the usual the-world-is-an-illusion cr - stuff," Jim said.
"Crap, you were going to say crap," Blair pounced. "Where's your religious tolerance?"
"I tolerate the Buddhist stuff, Chief. I just think it doesn't make sense," Jim returned, unperturbed. "I mean, if we're all god and all we have to do is remember that, then why does god keep on forgetting?"
"Maybe god likes people," Blair suggested. "Naomi used to say that people were the secret treasure of the world."
"Why 'secret,' Chief?"
Blair smiled. "Because they don't know how precious they are."
Jim chuckled. "That's Naomi all over."