Chapter 17

Blair's hand stilled on his head. His palm was gentle over Jim's ear, muffling the scream of the wind through the badly fitting windows, and Jim heard Blair's voice echo slightly in the cup of his hand. "We're gonna finish this together, Jim. I'll be as strong as I have to be and do whatever I have to do. That's all I can promise. I can't give you anything more. So it's just gonna have to be enough, OK?" Blair shuddered, nearly laughing. "Hey, and after all that, I almost forgot the heater."

He lifted his hand from Jim's head, and Jim couldn't help the moan that escaped him. Instantly Blair's hand was back, tenderly stroking his head, across his neck and shoulders, gentle and firm. "I'm sorry," Blair said in a soft, sad voice. "I'm so sorry. You just have to bear with me. Tell me when I do something wrong. I don't know why the simple stuff is so hard for me, but it is. Always that way, isn't it? I guess you've figured that out by now."

Blair was shaking with cold. Jim could hear it in his voice, feel it in his body. He gathered himself, holding Blair tight as he could from his awkward position, and tried to make himself sound exasperated. "Chief, for heaven's sake," he whispered. "We've been waiting for this all night. Turn on the heat."

"Aw, Jim --" Blair started, and didn't finish whatever he was going to say. Instead he squeezed Jim's shoulder in reassurance and promise and whispered, "Just a sec here, that's all."

Jim nodded against Blair's leg, wet denim and sand burning his face. Blair lifted his hand and Jim heard him fumbling blindly across the dash panel, then a stunning blast of cold, reeking air slammed into them. Jim didn't scream, but he couldn't stop the violent flinch, the instinctual, desperate attempt to burrow closer to Blair.

Blair screamed for both of them, a harsh, heartbroken cry. The air stopped instantly, and the whole car began moving strangely. Jim could feel the drag to one side, the sudden slowing. He didn't realize what Blair was doing until he felt the wheels bump onto the shoulder. Then they were stopped, and Blair was curled over him, trying to hold him.

Jim hated himself for his weakness, but for a few moments he allowed it. Blair's arms encircled his waist, hands spread wide across Jim's stomach. Blair's cheek rested against the small of his back, and the breath of his voice stirred the fine hair over his spine. "Shhh, Jim. Shhhh. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

No, they couldn't stop. Blair had to keep going. They had to keep running, because the man with the flat brown eyes knew Blair's name.

The horror of that shook Jim to his very core. The night had begun with Jim's name.

"Jim Ellison. He's a cop."

It was the end of Jim's life. For an instant everything was silent and still. Everything except the fan overhead. The motor hummed, blades turning slowly, dragging in a breeze that was heavy with moisture, thick with the smell of the rain and salt and sea.

Then they fell on Jim, clumsy in their fury. They cursed him and hit him with their fists, shoving guns hard against his temple or his throat when he tried to fight back. When he hung almost limp in their arms, dazed from the beating, they dragged him out of the house onto the beach, and Jim thought they were going to shoot him there in the sand. He struggled, but something smashed hard into the back of his neck, and a painful red flash exploded behind his eyes. He remembered his weakness, remembered falling to his knees in the sand. He had still been fighting, though he had known it was useless. There were so many of them, and they were going to kill him whether he fought them or not.

Please, Simon, he had thought. Whatever you do, please don't let Blair see this.

But they hadn't killed him then after all. Rough hands grabbed at him, trying to pull him back to his feet. Jim couldn't stand, so they simply dragged him around to the other side of the house, and there they tied him to the latticework under the deck. He remembered their nervous laughter, the laughter of men who are a little bit frightened, and a little bit ashamed, and at the time he had not understood. He lifted his head and saw the brown-eyed man standing close. Jim had hardly noticed him before, but he recognized the obscene thing he held in his right hand.

"Where'd you learn to make that?" Jim asked hoarsely. Speaking out loud helped, and he was glad they hadn't gagged him. "School of the Americas? So that would be my tax dollars at work?"

The man only smiled a little, lines crinkling at the corners of his eyes, and didn't answer.

"What's someone like you doing back in this country anyway? Employment opportunities a little thin since Pinochet retired?"

The brown-eyed man shrugged, still smiling, then handed his device to one of the others who were standing nearby. He wrapped both his fists in Jim's t-shirt, and with a sudden, violent effort, ripped Jim's shirt from collar to hem. Then he lifted his hands, palms out, and smiled more broadly. It was a silly, theatrical gesture. Jim should have laughed, but he couldn't quite manage that much. The back of his neck hurt, as well as his ribs, and his arms where the ropes were digging in.

The pathetic part was, he had thought he knew how much worse it was going to get.

He closed his eyes and reached for the memory of Blair's voice. It was time to dial it down, shut the world out, use the things Blair had given two years of his life to teach him. There was nothing to stay aware for, and he wondered if it would be any comfort to Blair to know he had made the end a little easier for his friend.

He heard the sound the crude device made, a faint click, and then an even softer humming. He caught a whiff of ozone, but he was already retreating so far, so fast, that he was not even particularly afraid anymore. He was listening to Blair's low, soft voice in his mind, and the only thing he regretted was being a little brusque with Blair the last time he had seen him. Sandburg hadn't been happy about this assignment at all, but there was no place for him in it, no way he could have accompanied Jim. "Chief," he had said, "The question is not up for debate. This will all be over and done with Thursday afternoon, Friday at the latest. Oh, and would you mind putting the check for the gas bill in the mail Friday morning if I haven't made it back yet? Knowing the Feds, I'll still be debriefing this time next year."

Thank god Blair had stayed away. The memory of all the times Blair had disobeyed and followed anyway rose up suddenly. Even worse, all the times Jim had allowed him to follow into something far too dangerous, far too desperate. It could have happened this time, so easily.

And maybe that was why his retreat didn't work. Instead of calming himself with the memory of Blair's voice, he was trembling at the thought of Blair here now, at his side or in his place. That was the very instant when the first, feather-soft stroke touched his bared chest.

The shock tore through everything he was and left him utterly bereft. He convulsed again and again, trying to curl over into himself and being held mercilessly upright by the ropes, inhuman sounds pouring from his throat. His mind was laid bare, every secret thought cracked wide open, exposed to the pitiless view of anyone who cared to see. There was no self anymore, no Jim Ellison at all. Just a hurting creature tied to a splintering wall, no control left, no possibility of holding his senses at bay. The entire universe beat at him, a tidal wave of sensation far worse than the momentary electric shock. He thought he was dying, and he was glad, because he could not stand to live any longer.

But then, slowly, dreadfully, he found his way back. Bit by bit the waters receded, and millions of years later he was able to raise his head and look at the man who had hurt him, and notice that his brown eyes were flat as a recent corpse's.

The man was still smiling. "Let's do that again," he said.

He started from the memories to find Blair still whispering to him, still apologizing, and still trying to soothe him. Suddenly it wasn't enough. With a sob, Jim tried to sit up. Blair sat up too, his hands gentle on Jim's back and sides, helping him, asking him in a quiet, frightened voice what Jim needed. Jim couldn't answer with words, but he dragged Blair to him, locking his arms around Blair's back.

He was alive. Some innate part of him had kept fighting its way back to Sandburg even after mind and spirit had been burned away from him. Death had been so close to him tonight, intimate and cruel as a capricious lover, and Jim had survived anyway. Even when Jim had believed he wanted nothing any more except the oblivion of that cold embrace -- even when he had screamed for death, wept and begged for it -- even then he had never stopped needing Blair even more than he needed an end to the pain.

It became desperately important to Jim to be sure Blair knew that. Jim buried his face against Blair's neck and shoulder, heedless of the sand that abraded him and the reek of saltwater, groping past all the things that hurt him to find such warmth, even though Blair trembled against him. "Chief," he said, feeling his breath puff hot against Blair's throat. "I had to find you."

Blair flinched violently, and his arms tightened around Jim's shoulders. "I know," he said. "I know, Jim. I saw you." His hands spread wide against Jim's back. "Here," he whispered. "You're so strong, but you need me, too. It sounds crazy, but I think that's why you're the man you are." He drew a shuddering breath. "Jim, you shouldn't have been alone."

Jim relaxed a little, letting more of the weight of his head rest on Blair's shoulder. "But I'm not alone." His voice was steadier than it had been, strengthened by his certainty. "I never was."

Blair made an inarticulate sound, less than a moan. His hands were restless on Jim's back, and Jim could feel how Blair's desire to be gentle fought with his need to touch Jim over and over again. One hand was spread wide against the small of Jim's back, but the other touched his shoulders, his upper back, the base of his skull, finally running fingers carefully through his hair. Jim felt every follicle stirring. It was a sensation so close to pain that he bit his lip to keep from crying out. But it was such rich affirmation of Blair's love that he found himself pressing his head back against the contact, hungry for more.

Was that his own voice saying those words? So greedy, so needful. "Blair, please."

"I know," Blair whispered. He released Jim for a moment, and at that, Jim almost did cry out. Then Blair's hands returned, cupping his jaw carefully, and easing Jim back just enough to look into his eyes. "Anything, Jim. Anything you want from me. Anything you need."

Return to the Inner Sanctum