Chapter 24

Jim didn't realize he had turned his face away until he felt a rough latticework board scraping his cheek. Turning away didn't help. He felt the heat of the other's breath on his throat, more obscene even than the fingers that patted and stroked their way down his stomach. "Don't worry," he told Jim. The fetid gust of his breath nearly closed Jim's throat with the sharp panic of gagging. "The Mother of Jesus will hold you in her arms before morning. But we have hours yet. Hours, you and I. Tell me -- is Blair as sensitive as you are?"

Jim threw back his head and howled. There was nothing left. No reason to fight the pain, no reason to accept it. Every shriek had splattered more of himself across the torturer's canvas until there was nothing left of Jim Ellison at all.

He had heard the boards creak against his struggles all night, the scream of nails shifting in the flimsy wood growing louder and louder in his ears as the pain stripped his control from him. As the world rushed in upon him for the last time, he heard the crack by his ear louder than a gunshot. Roaring in agony, he dragged at the sudden yielding, fist clenched, straining forward, ropes burning flesh and bruising muscle. But none of it hurt worse than the grains of sand cutting his feet, or the bite of the sharp-toothed rain blowing in across his bare back.

The sentinel could feel the weakness in the wood, the injury done to it by his weight hanging against it, the nails working their way free or splitting the grain. He could feel the way to keep pressuring it, the tiny, advancing breakage of its weakest fibers as he pulled up with all the strength in his arm, and it didn't matter that his wrist didn't bend that way. He heard the pop in a deep place in his arm and kept pulling anyway.

Another crack. His hand came forward, a bolt of splintered wood still bound to his wrist. The man with the flat brown eyes was so close to Jim he didn't see it, even when Jim drove the wood into the side of his throat. Those terrible eyes widened in surprise. His knees buckled and he collapsed against Jim, blood beginning to pulse slow and thick around the protruding slat.

His hands scrabbled against Jim's body and he took a wheezing breath of air, refusing to die. Blood poured from his nose and mouth as he exhaled, and it burned Jim as it splashed on his chest, the reek sickening him. The weight of the torturer dragged down on his arm, still bound at the elbow, until Jim thought in a lost corner of his mind that his arm would surely break under the strain. He had screamed then too, and the laughter coming from the house above faltered for a moment, then resumed louder and more coarse than before.

He stared down at the man hanging from his wrist, whose head felt like live coals pressed to his ribs, whose hands flailed against Jim, trying to hurt, even at the last. His whiskers scraped Jim's flesh as he rolled his head up, trying to meet Jim's eyes. Jim shut his own, but he knew the man who had broken him was looking at him still, greedy for Jim's agony beyond all else, embracing it as solace even as he died. There was nothing Jim could do to shut those flat brown eyes. They would watch him forever, carry the knowledge of Jim's weakness and failure and every betrayal with them into eternity.

Jim gasped, and was back in the motel room, the spasm of his body jerking his weight hard against Blair slumbering exhausted at his back. The dim quiet should have been a haven of relief, but the walls he could see weren't enough protection from what pursued him. The enemy was as close as his own skin, and Jim huddled within it, afraid.

Chaos lay on the other side. It nibbled at the wounds on his body, found them sweet, and burrowed deeper. Cracks bloomed relentlessly across the tremulous barriers Sandburg had helped him erect, and Jim knew, with despair, they could not hold much longer. "Blair, please," he said, not even speaking out loud. The request was too unfair to voice, but he couldn't hold it in. "Help me."

Blair flinched a little, and slept on.

Jim shifted slowly, hearing the springs in the mattress yield beneath him, feeling the prickle of raveling threads in the coarse bedspread, and always, always the omnipresent sand scraping and grinding. Blair moaned a soft protest at the loss of contact, not coming awake, as Jim managed painfully to slide just far enough away to roll onto his back. He lay still for a moment then, marshalling his strength and his slipping control. The pain beat through him in waves that rose and fell in time with his own pulse, and helplessly he let it carry him. He turned his head as he waited for an ebb tide, feeling the tension in his muscles drawn like a cord from the base of his skull all the way down his spine, and looked at Blair.

Sandburg lay curled on his side, knees drawn up a little and digging into the side of Jim's thigh. His arms were tucked between himself and Jim. He was breathing in snuffling, open-mouthed breaths. Wide swathes of drying sand streaked across his ribs and chest, and a few crystals of salt still clung to his eyelashes, a tiny glittering against Blair's cheek in the darkness of the room. There was a tender-looking, swollen place over his jaw.

So the memories were written on Sandburg's flesh as well. Jim felt a numbing, breathtaking regret. It trickled down his scalp like the rain, shattering his feeble attempt at concentration. The pain spiked in irregular, jagged peaks, and more of the world punched through with every breath. There was a coffee shop somewhere nearby -- or perhaps not near at all. He could smell hot grease and burnt sugar. He heard the hiss of hot water hitting coffee grounds and trickling into the pot underneath. Plates clacking loud against each other, the unendurable cacophony of flatware scooped up together and thrown down on a metal tray. Jim gasped aloud, panicking a little, and instead of shutting down only spread the net further.

Sand and seashells rolling on the beach under the incoming waves. Millions of brittle shell fragments clicking and rattling. Every grain of sand on the beach. Blair! he screamed in his mind, over the din that drew him back to madness with the inevitability of the tide, and he rolled over onto his side, heedless of the way such sudden movement hurt, and curled around Sandburg in desperation. He tucked Blair's head under his chin and wrapped his arms around him. He tried to be gentle, but his need was too urgent, his fear too great.

Blair's arms were still between them and his knees were drawn up, frustrating Jim's attempt to get even closer. He hooked his leg over Blair's hip, trying to encompass as much of Blair as he could. Blair didn't awaken even then, but he pressed a little closer, making an open-mouthed little sound Jim felt warmly against his throat, and with it, the universe began to quiet. Blair's forearms were pressed to Jim's chest, one hand spread open wide, the other clenched in a gentle fist. His head pushed against the underside of Jim's chin. His hair was gritty with sand, stiff with dried salt. But the top of his head was so warm.

Nothing else mattered. Nothing else could touch Jim. He cradled Sandburg closer to his heart, and instead of the din of the outer world, he listened in his memory to Blair's voice, telling Jim over and over again that he loved him. He listened even more closely to the sound of Blair's heartbeat and Blair's every exhalation, telling him the same thing right now.

He would survive this, even though it was impossible for him to imagine ever reclaiming his old life. But Blair believed he could. Blair believed all things, bore all things, hoped all things, endured all things, and Jim knew he would do anything in his power not to disappoint that love. Taking a deep breath, Jim loosed his desperate hold on Blair just a little, so he could stroke Blair's back with slow, tender care. It comforted him to be able to return Blair's trust with something besides an imprisoning embrace.

Blair muttered in his sleep and arched like a drowsing cat under Jim's touch. There. Jim sighed. More of the outside world was slipping away. He concentrated on that careful touch, and even the musty reek of the mattress beneath him faded and was lost as he concentrated on smoothing his hand down Blair's back again, feeling past the cut of the sand and the sticky film of salt to the smooth warmth of Blair's skin.

When he thought he was calm enough to bear it, he brought his hand up and held the back of Blair's head for a moment, feeling the precious weight against the palm of his hand, then slipped his hand forward, laying his palm along the line of Blair's jaw. The bruise was a little warmer than the surrounding flesh. "I'm sorry, Chief," he said in a soft, low voice.

Blair stirred uneasily at that, nearly coming awake. "Shhh," Jim whispered. "Easy. Sleep, now." And felt a tenderness so profound it was nearly pain when Blair quieted immediately in response to his voice, settling closer to Jim with a sigh.

His hand still resting over the bruise on Blair's face, he allowed himself to remember the taste of Blair's blood on his lips and in his mouth. How had Sandburg known? But somehow he had. The heat of his blood drawn over Jim's features with such aching care had displaced forever the hot, irregular gouts of the torturer. It had been more than mere substitution and replacement. Such a profound mystery. Everything Blair was. All his fears and uncertainties, all his courage and love.

Jim had still been so lost, believing he couldn't possibly allow Sandburg to take such terror and desolation into himself. All Jim had left to call his own by then were the despair and grief and regret. And so much pain. The cut of the knife had shattered any hope there was anything left to him but betrayal and pain, and he wouldn't allow Blair to partake of such a bitter feast. There was almost nothing left of him then, nothing worth anything to anyone, but he had strength enough to keep Blair away.

Then he had heard Blair, weeping alone on the sand.

Remembering what he could of it all, Jim crossed his arms carefully over Blair's back, finding a vast, abiding comfort in Blair's deep sleep, even though he couldn't find that rest himself yet. He had been able to pull himself to Blair's side, out there on the beach. He remembered that. He had tried to do what Blair wanted him to do, he was certain of that as well. Blair had simply demanded everything of him, and he could no more refuse than he could will his own heart to stop beating.

He knew. He'd tried to do that too, tonight. It had been only a small failure next to all the others he kept close within his heart, but it had been the one he regretted most bitterly at the time.

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