Chapter 16


Please, Chief, help me.

"You planning to take all night with him?" The voice was close, and Jim started, terrified he might have called for Blair out loud.

Metal snapped, and tore from metal, and the new smell of beer mingled with those of sweat and wet sand and the sea. The man with the flat brown eyes spoke quietly, his gaze never leaving Jim's face. "The boat won't be here till morning. I've got time."

The other man muttered something, and Jim heard his footsteps moving away, the sand crunching and sliding under his boots. Jim tried not to listen to that sound, or to the fizzing of the carbonation in the beer can, or to the heartbeats all around him, the breathing, the movement. The world had become too loud to shut out a while ago, and Jim hung against the ropes, waiting for it to take him completely.

When the other man was gone, the one with the flat brown eyes said, "I've got a question for you." His breath puffed in Jim's face, reeking of cumin seeds and stale tobacco. He was touching Jim, fingertips smearing little circles in the sweat that poured like blood down Jim's face. Then he reached up and laid his hand on Jim's forehead, solicitous as a mother checking her infant's fever, and Jim felt the dissolution coming again, even before the pain. Everything was pain, even that soft touch. Especially that.

He whispered to Jim, his voice husky with arousal. "You keep calling for him, but do you really want him to see you like this?"

Oh, no, Jim thought. Please.

A whisker-stubbled cheek touched his own. The soft voice spoke in his ear, not even whispering now, just a breath. "Who's Blair?"

Jim surged against his bonds. Boards creaked and splintered, and the man with the flat brown eyes smiled at his fight, then drew away. Jim tried to brace himself even though he knew it did no good. Blair, I'm sorry, he thought, and then he heard the buzz an instant before the fire leapt through his belly, broke across his mind, and shattered everything.

"Jim."

Blair's voice was so close. Jim opened his eyes fast, and saw hazy daylight through dirty car windows. Sandburg was still in his arms, still holding him tight as well. "Jim, hush, it's all right, it's all right, I've got you, you're safe now." An endless litany, probably because he wasn't sure he could make Jim hear him. Blair's tears had run down the side of Jim's neck and left wet streaks on his chest. Those were Blair's hands touching his face now, tender with love, not corruption. "Jim, it's all right, we're almost home now. We're so close."

Jim shuddered. He drew away from Blair's embrace, and Blair, after a shocked instant, let him do it. But Jim reached at the same time for Blair's hand and pulled it back, curling the shorter, more square fingers under his own, then tucking his hand and Blair's together against his throat, under his chin. "Chief," he rasped, cursing himself because he could not make his voice any steadier than it was. "We have to go right now, this minute. Get the car started and let's go."

"OK," Blair tenderly. "All right. We're going. As long as you're all right, because if you need to wait another minute or two, really, there's no hurry by this point, is there?" He opened his free arm, welcoming Jim back if Jim needed him.

He did. There was nothing Jim needed more than to let himself sink into that embrace, bury his head against Blair's shoulder, taste his mouth, accept his love. "Shut the car door and drive," he growled, desperation harshening his tone.

Blair didn't flinch, but his tear-reddened eyes widened. "What is it, man? What's wrong?"

The harshness was impossible to sustain with Blair's hand in his, warm and gentle. "He knows you," Jim confessed in despair. "I told him your name. I didn't mean to. I didn't realize what I was doing --" His voice broke. The interior of the car was creeping up on him again. Latex, sugar syrup, decomposing vinyl. Though Blair was physically near, Jim felt as though he were receding from his friend at terrific, terrifying speeds. He had to hold Blair, he had to keep him close or he would be lost, but his own pain didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore but getting Sandburg away. Far enough away the man with the flat brown eyes wouldn't ever touch Blair, because Jim knew that was the one thing he could not survive.

But damn him, Blair wasn't driving. He was just sitting there, staring at Jim with such pity and sorrow Jim could hardly bear to meet his gaze.

"It's all right, Jim," he said in his choked voice. "I know what you did, I think, and believe me, it's not because you were weak. It's because you're so strong. And because you needed me. And I should have been there for you. I told you you could count on me, and I wasn't there."

It made no sense to Jim, as if the words weren't words, but the sound of the gulls he could hear faintly, growing slowly louder as if they were surrounding the car to take him back out to the surf. How could he have been strong, when he knew he had screamed at the agony? How could it be Blair's fault that in a matter of a few hours, all of Jim's will had not only been broken but destroyed entirely?

"No," he said slowly, his brow creasing in puzzlement. That wasn't what was important anyway, and the thought of being broken gave it back to him in a rush. If they had done that to him, they could do it to Blair as well. And Blair was so much stronger than Jim, in every way that mattered. It would take longer to break him, but they would do it, and Jim wouldn't be able to stop it. He wouldn't be able to do anything but lie there, because he would fight until he was beaten to the ground, but they would do it, and he would have to know that once again he hadn't been strong enough.

And like last night, they wouldn't let him die when he needed to.

His fingers tightened on Blair's hand, pressing it hard against the pulse point at the base of his own throat. Blair's body, tied as his had been... the ache in his wrists and ankles was suddenly there again, like shackles of heated steel. "Drive," he said hoarsely. "Please."

Blair nodded then, and Jim kept his eyes open with fierce determination, afraid to close them and see that image of Blair's head hanging forward, as his own had done at the end. Even when the squealing of the rusted, bent door hinges shot through his fragile control, he kept his eyes on Blair, as if that could substitute for the touch of him.

"Shh, Jim, I'm sorry, it'll be all right, we'll be moving in a second." Blair's voice was low and calm, soothing. The shiver in it was only because he was cold, not because he had screamed for mercy, for Jim, for death. Jim shuddered and held tighter to his hand, afraid it wouldn't be enough. The gulls were getting louder.

With his left hand, Blair cranked down the window, cursing as it stuck partway down before finally moving again, then he leaned far enough away to reach out through it and pull the keys from the outside of the door where he'd left them dangling in his haste.

It was awkward starting the car left-handed, but Blair did it without even an experimental tug on the hand Jim kept in his desperate grip. The starter ground metal on metal, and Jim groaned a sound that was nearly the same. It took two tries to get the engine started, and Blair was shaking when it finally caught, nearly as badly as Jim was. He paused, letting the engine idle with rough, uneven strokes that made the whole chassis vibrate, and turned toward Jim again, reaching for him, knowing he was needed. "OK," Blair said quietly. Without ever really letting go of Jim's hand he slid his palm around to the back of Jim's, then stroked the length of his trembling forearm, careful of the gritty sand, but still touching as much as he could with his open palm. He hardly touched the abrasions at Jim's elbow, but to make up for skipping over them and losing some contact, he laid his hand more firmly on the biceps, trembling and rock hard with strain. Then to the shoulder and the back of Jim's neck. He put his hand there at the crook of Jim's neck and shoulder and said, "Here, there's room, isn't there? You can lie down and rest your head on my leg, and I'll get us away from here."

Jim looked at him for a moment, then allowed Blair to draw him down. "That's right," Blair whispered encouragingly as Jim pulled his long legs up onto the seat, curled almost into a fetal position in order to fit, his bare feet flat against the torn padding on the door, and his cheek resting on Blair's thigh.

Blair's jeans were wet, gritty with sand, and smelling of the sea. But they were warm from the heat of Sandburg's body, and the smell of the ocean was the faintest afterthought to Blair's self. "Just hold on to me, Jim. We're on our way." He let his hand rest on Jim's head for a moment, then leaned to the side so he could lay his forearm on Jim's side, his hand spread wide over the point of Jim's broad shoulder. Jim felt him twist awkwardly as he reached over for the emergency brake, but he didn't raise his hand from Jim's shoulder.

Jim tried to huddle closer. He pushed the back of his head against Blair's stomach, and wrapped his hand around Blair's calf, feeling the muscle tense slightly as he put his foot on the accelerator. The rear tires spun in the sand for a moment, a spitting, grinding noise that seemed to go right through Jim. He turned his head, pressing his face against Blair's thigh as the car bumped up the rest of the way onto the asphalt.

Blair's hand tightened on his shoulder. "Told you, man," he said in quiet triumph. "Home stretch now, Jim. You did it." His hand moved gently down Jim's arm. "You did it."

The roar of tires on the asphalt filled Jim's head, and the sensation of growing speed threatened to whirl everything away from him. He tried not to moan out loud, trying to feel only Blair, to hear only the sound of his voice. He told himself, desperately, that every second of motion took them further away from the place where he had been broken, and took Blair further from danger, and that was all that mattered. Not his own weakness, not his own sickness. He held on tighter, both hands clutching Blair's leg hard until Blair said softly, his hand gentle over Jim's head, "Easy, man. I got to drive. Do you need me to stop for a minute?"

"No!" Jim groaned angrily. "No," he said again, more gently, his eyes closed, his forehead pressed to Blair's thigh. "Whatever happens, keep going. Chief -- " he heard the panic and anger coming back into his voice, and he willed them away. He had to make Sandburg hear him. "Chief, you'll keep going, no matter what. Promise me."

"Hey," Blair said, quietly, tenderly. "Hey, Jim, we're going together. It's gonna be all right."

He didn't have the strength to argue. "Blair," he whispered brokenly. "Please."



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