Jim's eyes flew open, and he found himself looking at ceramic tiles, an uneven off-white expanse sprinkled with dull gold sparkles. Water spilled down through a knotted towel, and Blair was in his arms, holding on tight, not letting go. Blair's strength. That was the strength that mattered, and the man with the flat brown eyes had never discovered it, no matter how deep he burrowed, no matter how much he pried away. He couldn't have understood, even if he had seen it.
Jim clenched his hands into fists at Blair's back. "Sandburg." His voice rasped. Blair's half-dried hair was in his face, reeking of the ocean.
"Right here, Jim." Gentle love in his voice. Endless, boundless affection and care. "I've got you. What is it?"
"He had it wrong." Jim heard himself, and it sounded like a moan. He broke off, wanting to say it better, more clearly.
Patience wasn't one of Blair's virtues. His voice was gentle but insistent, like his arms around Jim's back, locked tight, holding him there, supporting him with all his strength so Jim wouldn't have to do it alone. "Who got it wrong? I don't understand."
Jim rubbed his cheek against Blair's head a little too hard, the pressure of Blair's skull uncomfortable against his bruised jaw, the tangle of sandy, half-wet hair scraping his cheek, but still, underneath it all, that necessary blessed release from the pain. "He thought it meant something." In another moment, Blair would lead him back into the water. And he could do it, Jim thought with a kind of calm astonishment. Blair had been right all along. "Breaking me," Jim whispered. "He thought it would be difficult. Some kind of accomplishment."
Blair moaned, a heartbroken sound pulled from his own anguish at what Jim had suffered. Jim felt him gasp violently for breath, heard the protest rising before Blair could even voice it.
"No," Jim said, and held him more gently, lifting one hand to cradle the back of Blair's head. They had to get this sand washed out. His palm burned as Blair shook his head in clumsy denial. "No," Jim said. "Listen to me."
Blair silenced himself at once and waited, still holding Jim tight. His breaths snuffled against Jim's throat as he waited. It took a while. Jim was exhausted and hurting, and talking took energy he had expended a long time ago. He could still taste the chlorine and the taint of plastic from that cup of water at the back of his tongue, and his throat was raw with brine. He knew he must have swallowed a lot of water out there in the sea but he didn't remember it clearly. Even though it had been nearly a day since he had eaten last, he felt only an abiding queasiness at the mere thought of food. It was the least of his concerns.
"He never figured it out," Jim managed to say at last. "Didn't matter what he did to me. You were my life. You were my strength." Blair was holding him so tightly that Jim lifted his other hand as well, holding Blair's trembling head, the errant droplets from the shower utterly inconsequential, even as they fell on Jim's arms, seeming to hiss against the sensitive flesh. "And he couldn't touch you." Jim wanted to say the words out loud, clear and strong, make them real that way. "He never will," he insisted, as loudly as he could.
"No," Blair agreed in a hoarse voice, and Jim remembered all the times this night Blair had wished he could have taken Jim's place. He didn't say that now, though. "He couldn't touch us. No one can touch us. You know that." He laughed gently, one hand patting Jim's back. "Takes me a little while to figure things out sometimes, but you've known all along."
He felt Blair sigh, then, and it was a long, deep breath. Jim was beginning to recognize that sound. Blair steeling himself for another tremendous effort, another battle that would take more than he had to offer. But he would do it anyway, for Jim, and Jim understood. "It's all right," he said, putting his arms around Blair's shoulders again and closing his eyes. "I'm ready."
Blair's arms tightened. "Just hold on to me, and we'll do this a little bit at a time. And if it gets too bad, tell me, and we'll do it another way."
Jim nodded grimly, not sparing the energy to speak out loud. Besides, there was nothing he could say. He'd figured out a long time ago there was no other way, save to go straight through the heart of the pain. But Blair was holding him, and Blair's desperate desire to shield him from hurt was more important than the fact he couldn't.
"OK," Blair was saying softly, talking to himself as much as Jim. "Concentrate on me. Ignore everything else as much as you can." Jim felt him slide one foot backward, the press of Blair's thigh against his own becoming less and less, and instinctively he slid his own foot forward as well, trying to keep that contact.
He felt smooth enamel under the sole of his foot, the thinnest film of lukewarm water. Then the grit of sand, and an outline limned in dirt on the floor of the bath, the faint tackiness of adhesive left behind from a long-gone anti-slip decal. It was in the shape of a flower, Jim thought with absurd irrelevance, trying to distract himself from the way the slight roughness caught at the wounds on his feet. Would have been orange and yellow, maybe avocado green. He pulled back from the sensation, afraid that he could tell what color it had been if he let himself follow the feeling too far, and the knowledge of how lost he could become frightened him because he was still so close to that edge of madness.
He was close enough at last for the soft spray of water from the showerhead to run over his arms where he was holding Blair so tightly. It trickled over the abrasions on his wrists and arms, and the scream torn from his throat hurt him as much as everything else. His knees buckled, and he felt Blair stagger, clutching harder, trying to support both of them.
"Blair, please --" He was trying not to talk out loud. It hurt him, and he knew his cries of pain were hurting Blair as well, but he couldn't stop them. That control had been ripped from him long ago. "Oh god, Blair. Oh, Christ." The agony of it sliced through him, pain spiking as though it were happening all over again. Coarse ropes chewing flesh, the weight of his own body hurting him as he struggled, but he couldn't lie still, even though he had surrendered long before. Every shock forced him again into the agonizing fight, the battle he'd already lost so many times. And every time left him weaker than before. More of the universe rushed through, howling, and he couldn't stop it. Couldn't even summon the strength to try, and then while he hung there, worse than dead, the pain came again. And again. And again --
Blair's soft voice, aching with love. "Jim, I'm here. You don't need to fight anymore."
Blair, help me
He was falling. His knees had buckled and he was hanging on Sandburg the way he'd hung on the splintered latticework, hurting and helpless and so afraid. The pain broke everything. Nothing left to hope for but death, and the bastard with the flat brown eyes wouldn't kill him clean. Taken everything, and then didn't even have the decency to clean up his own goddamned mess when he was through. The pain arced through Jim. He felt his body drawn taut as a bow, every muscle straining in agony. The moment of release was terrible. He staggered and realized he was free, and there was heat pressed against him, a warm head against his shoulder.
He would take his death, if they wouldn't give it to him. He knew the ocean was near, because the roar of the surf carried every other sound on this howling planet to him. A memory came to him from another lifetime. He remembered skimming over the surf, free and alive. It wasn't too late. The sea could still free him. All he had to do first was shake himself free of the damnable weight dragging at his arm. The evil son of a bitch clung to him still, insisting that Jim live, even while he died himself. His blood smelled like bath water, splashing over Jim's hurting wrists, and the sand was everywhere, burning, grating, rolling sharp-edged between their bodies.
Jim growled like an animal. He heard the grumble rising from his throat, and it hurt, but it felt good too. The man Jim Ellison was gone, just an encumbrance to him, but the heart still beat, the lungs still dragged gulps of salty, burning air. It would take bestial strength to stop that heart and empty those lungs for the final time. Or the infinitely unforgiving embrace of the ocean where he had been happy once, in that distant lifetime. He couldn't be happy or alive again, but he could find freedom.
He tore his other arm free from the trellis, the weakened boards cracking and snapping, and fell in a heap, dragged to the ground by the weight of his dying tormentor. There was blood and pain everywhere, and the man with the flat brown eyes was still bound to him. He'd become a monstrous double, the other half of who Jim was, forcing him to cling to life even while his own blood ran down the broken board that had punched through his throat.
Then the man died. Jim heard his heart stop.
And it didn't matter. It didn't change anything. Jim screamed in rage, and heard the sound echo off the planking at the side of the beach house and bounce back to him, a cry no more purposeful than the bewildered howl of a hurt dog, dragging himself away to die, screaming because it didn't have the sense to know the universe simply didn't care.
Something spoke out of the maelstrom. Someone had heard. Jim shook his head groggily, but didn't dare open his eyes. The pain was so raw, so fresh, that he didn't know for sure what he would find if he looked. Maybe he would still be lying under the deck, sprawled in an ungainly embrace with death and only imagining the sound he wanted to hear most.
"Jim, please." The voice was breaking, shattered with sorrow. "Please, I can't do this alone. I need you."
Jim knew that voice, and the pain in it was more important than his own. He opened his eyes and looked into his salvation, pressed closer to him than even the despair had been. His hands had fallen away from Blair, and he brought them up slowly, tracing the warm, solid shape keeping him upright, redefining his own presence by the strength he found there. At last he clutched Blair's head in both hands, holding him still so he could gaze into those frightened blue eyes and be sure Blair knew he was telling the truth. "I'm right here, Chief. It's all right. I've got you."
Blair's eyes closed for a moment, and when they opened again they were fogged with relief. "Aw, Jim," he was whispering over and over again. "Oh man, Jim. Oh man."
Jim's left elbow hurt with a blank, aggravating ache. But there was nothing tied to this pain. He was bewildered when it triggered nothing in his treacherous psyche, rotten with memories like landmines. And the shower tiles were cold against his back. When had that happened?
He patted Blair's face in clumsy reassurance, feeling the bristle of day-old whiskers and the burn of the sand, and tried to understand what he had done. They were turned sideways in the tub, and Blair was bracing him against the side of the shower. With dull shame, Jim realized he must have begun thrashing under the stream of water and banged his elbow on the tile wall, and he had no memory of that at all, only the refreshed vision of his final despair. Blair had pushed him up against the wall to keep him from falling, and used his voice and heart to catch Jim's mind as it fell within. Jim still felt stray droplets from the showerhead, but his wrists were no longer under the stream. They burned at the memory though, and from the salt newly washed into them. Everything seemed to be moving too fast, just out of his reach. Blair hadn't stopped talking, and it took Jim a while longer to figure out what he was saying.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know it would be so bad. Jim, please forgive me. We'll figure out another way. I'm sorry." Nearly breathless with desperation, Blair was shaking with the effort of holding Jim upright, his footing a matter of luck in the slippery tub.
Jim did the only thing he could. He tried hard for a smile. He felt the laugh lines crinkle around his eyes, but his mouth hurt too much to finish the expression. He hoped it was enough for Blair anyway. "No way to take a shower, Chief, without getting under the water."
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