Chapter 23

No, Jim thought miserably. No more tears, not for my sake. He wanted to turn and pull Blair into his arms, but all the reserves were long since used up, and he couldn't manage something even as necessary as that. Already he could feel himself beginning to drift, the pains of his body and the chaos of the outside world shuddering across the same abused nervous system, echoing back and forth, each amplifying the other. The ripples met in harmonic peaks that grew sharper and higher with each beat of his heart. His next breath was a near sob of frustration at the endless, wearing, seemingly inescapable pain.

"No, Jim," Blair whispered then. "No, man, I'm here." He laid his hand on Jim's cheek, and Jim found himself straining to that careful touch. "Just concentrate on me. There's nothing else." He gave a little hiccup of a sob, almost laughing. "Well, maybe there's some other stuff, but it's all really stupid. So just push it away, and I'll help you any way I can, you know that, right?"

Jim felt Blair trying to tuck himself even closer, his wet jeans sandy and rough against Jim's, but his chest warm where it pressed to Jim's back, the heartbeat strong and steady despite everything they had been through. "And when you're ready, we'll get a shower, get this sand washed off you, finally be warm and dry -- But not till you're ready." Blair sighed, long and deep. "Feels good to lie down for a sec, doesn't it?" He sniffled, no longer crying, though he was trembling a little. "I don't know," he went on, more softly. "It might be even worse now that we're finally here. Since we're not moving anymore, things might start to creep up on you."

Blair's hand moved carefully, stroking Jim's cheek so gently with his fingertips even the sand didn't hurt. Then he moved his hand to cover Jim's eyes, curling it carefully over the curve of his brow. "So we need to be careful, OK?" His voice was slow and exhausted. Jim could feel an infinity of weariness in the way Sandburg's body relaxed against his own. "Just focus on me, Jim. Nothing else. Just listen to my voice and relax. You're safe. We're both safe now, and everything's going to be all right. I promise."

Jim closed his eyes, feeling the drag on his lashes as they flickered shut against Blair's palm. "Aw, that's right," Blair whispered. "I'm going to take care of you. Just leave everything to me now." Blair took a long deep breath and let it out slowly. The warm air against Jim's back made him sigh in relief as well, and he felt Blair's smile against his shoulder blade, a gentle shifting of pressure.

"I know you're not real comfortable right now," Blair murmured. "Underwear full of sand isn't my favorite thing either. But we'll rest for a while, and everything will be ok. Just listen to my voice and rest. I'm right here. You know that, Jim. You know that, always."

A moment of silence, and Jim tried to be patient, struggling to be content with the warmth of Blair's body against his own and the tender intimacy of Blair's hand over his eyes, as though that shield could keep the rest of the howling universe away from him.

Then Blair began talking again, his voice the balm to Jim's soul it had always been. Perhaps even more so now, slurring with exhaustion and talking on anyway, simply because Jim needed him. "And it'll be easier, man, when you've gotten a little rest. 'Cause you're so tired now, makes it harder to control your senses. But it'll come back, Jim." Another deep breath, Blair's body shaking as he relaxed even further. His heartbeat was slowing down, and the arm lying on Jim was growing heavier, the hand over his eyes less careful in its touch. "I'll help you," he insisted drowsily. "Every step of the way. Everything's gonna be all right."

Another silence, longer this time. Waiting for Blair's voice was like sliding over the edge of a precipice. Dreamlike and slow, no ground beneath him, knowing gravity would grab him and yank down hard any second. The fall would be long, and he would know all the way down how much the impact was going to hurt. But maybe Blair would get a lifeline to him in time.

If Sandburg didn't fall asleep first.

Suddenly Blair flinched hard against him, a sharp, involuntary jerk. "Ah!" Blair said seriously, and Jim realized Blair didn't even know how near sleep he was. The hand that had been over his eyes slipped down, and Blair wrapped his arm around Jim's waist and tucked himself even nearer somehow, bending his knees to match the sprawl of Jim's legs. Then he began talking again. "I know, it's gonna be so tough for you now, letting go enough to get some sleep. So just listen to me. If you can't let go, then let me be everything for a while, and I tell you what, Jim, we'll pick up the rest of the world later on. Whaddaya say?" A huge yawn, then, and a long sigh after it. "I've got you," Blair mumbled, sounding wholly contented and sure. His arm tightened around Jim. "Not going to let you go."

"I know." Jim mouthed the words without speaking them out loud. Blair would be asleep in moments and Jim wouldn't try to stop him. He crossed his own arms over Blair's where it lay tucked around his waist. "Rest," he told Blair, and this time he did speak out loud.

"Aw, Jim, both of us," he slurred. "Jus' for a minute, here." One of Blair's legs jerked, and the fingers on the hand Blair had tucked under Jim's side twitched at the same time. "Lissen to my voice," Blair mumbled. "Everything's OK." All at once his breathing became harsher and steadier. Blair was asleep.

Jim opened his eyes.

The room was bleak and gloomy as only a strange, shuttered room in daylight can be. Everything was shades of gray, the second bed, the sink in its tiny alcove just beyond the half-open bathroom door. The place smelled of dust and disinfectant, stale cigarette smoke, perfumed hand soap, mildew, and very faintly of Blair's earlier presence in it. His backpack, that's what Jim was picking up, the leather redolent with all the scents of Blair's life, subtly blended into something that was more than the sum of its parts. Just like Sandburg himself.

The ordeal was over, Jim told himself, and tried to feel relief. Ought to call Simon, he thought vaguely, without any ability to act on the idea. Let him know what happened. And tell him this is the last time we do any joint operations with the Feds, got that?

Jim felt himself starting to shake, despite the warmth of Blair's sleeping body at his back. It was over. It had to be. The explosion that had ripped through the misty dawn on the dunes -- surely that had been the Feds moving in. What else could it have been?

The boat won't be here till morning. I've got time.

The remembered voice pulled a shiver from him and his arms trembled with the desire to press Blair's arm closer across his waist. A faint chance the man who knew Blair's name was still out there, somewhere -- Jim squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face on the coarse bedspread. Synthetic fibers burned his cheek. No. It was all over. He would lie here, easy, resting, waiting for Blair. If he stayed calm, he could make it.

His left wrist ached. The torn skin on his right one burned a little, but the left one ached clear through to the bone, the pain radiating out across the back of his hand and up the inside of his wrist. Everything hurt, but as he struggled to stay calm, to accept the pain without letting it worsen, his aching wrist began to consume more and more of his thoughts. It seemed strange that it hurt so much worse than the right.

He was still holding Blair's arm wrapped around his waist. He cautiously disengaged his own left arm and brought it up to look at his wrist. The damage was too recent for the bruises to really show. Just abraded flesh in a raw, red stripe. Merely looking at it seemed to intensify the pain. Or maybe it was letting go of Blair that did it. He shut his eyes again, trying to tuck his arm back over Blair's, but he was too late.

Blair shifted in his sleep, pulling his arms away and turning a little. He was still close, but he was no longer tucked carefully around Jim, and suddenly nothing was tolerable any more. Jim couldn't keep anything within limits. The salty film on his flesh burned, and it seemed to him he could feel the sharp, square corners of each and every grain of sand trapped in his clothes or drying on his skin. His wounds were more than untreated injuries. Each mark on his body was a memory written on flesh.

And oh yes, he knew how he had hurt his wrist. Had known all along. It didn't matter that his mind had shut down by the time it happened. The memories could still be read plainly, scrawled across his body. Plain as every wound that made poor Blair shudder and go so pale when he tried to look at them.

He had broken the flimsy latticework board behind him at long last, long after it was too late to do any good. He had been nothing anymore. All he'd ever been was reduced to a hurting animal splayed on the vivisectionist's table. Flat brown eyes swam up before him, and he had asked plainly and simply so anyone could understand, most of all himself, "End it."

It was over. He'd known that. All the barriers destroyed, everything Blair had ever tried to teach him, (oh god everything Blair had ever loved about him), all of it burned away as the night dragged on. Sensation battered him even when the device wasn't touching his flesh, and he knew he would never be able to shut it all out again. Not without Blair, and he had betrayed Blair over and over again, screamed for him every time the pain broke him from within, driving him down into the abyss. Yet he had just kept crawling back for some goddamned reason, only to see the proof of his betrayal staring at him, waiting to do it again. Thin, unsmiling lips and flat brown eyes.

"For the love of God," Jim had whispered, his throat burning with the effort of speech. "Please." He'd even thought, for a foolish, desperate moment, that the man would grant him his request. The expression on his torturer's face didn't change, but he reached up thoughtfully and laid his hand in the center of Jim's welted chest. Gentle as his touch was, Jim recoiled, head tossed back in agony. The heat of that palm seared him like a brand.

"So sensitive," the man murmured, in a voice that spiked through Jim's head with such effortless violence. "I've never had anyone like you before."

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