Sandburg just stared at him, and the look in his eyes was so wild Jim wondered for an instant if he had even spoken the words he meant out loud, or if something wholly different had emerged, perhaps just incomprehensible noise, animal grunts of pain. "Blair," he said, closing his eyes and concentrating, trying hard to listen to the sounds he was making and to make sense of them himself. He felt the breath of voice rattling between his vocal chords and felt the sound waves moving through the bones in his face, a terrifying degree of awareness. If he concentrated like that for long, he would forget how to talk altogether.
But his voice was true, rasping and broken as it was. Blair's name. He heard it clearly, and he opened his eyes again and saw Blair had heard him too. "Jim," he said. "I don't want to hurt you any more. I don't think I can stand it."
"Already told you," Jim whispered. "You make the pain go away."
"Jim," Blair spoke without breath, only moving his lips. He laid his arms on Jim's shoulders and eased him forward and around again, closer to the water. "Here, easy," he breathed, and pulled Jim another step closer. His elbows were on Jim's shoulders, his arms clasped around the back of Jim's neck. He let his forehead rest against the curve of Jim's neck, and waited for Jim to take the next step himself.
Carefully, knowing the danger, Jim wrapped his own arms around Blair in turn. Water from the showerhead was streaming down Blair's back. The tepid water ran over Jim's wrists and arms as well, and where it washed over his flayed skin, the pain was unendurable. Salt and sand scraped his wounds raw, and the ache bored through flesh like a dull needle all the way to the bone, scraping, and scraping, inexorably down to the marrow.
He kept his arms clamped around Blair's shoulders though the agony threatened to destroy everything. The lukewarm trickle of water through a knotted hotel towel rocked his tenuously regained sanity to the very core. Dear god, he thought, despairing. To have suffered so much, to have survived so much, and to have it all end like this. His jaws were clamped too tightly to scream, but someone was moaning. He could hear the low sound echoing off the tile walls. Horrifying, wholly lost, utterly hopeless, as though a soul in hell had been granted voice.
Blair's arms were loosening, easier around his trembling shoulders, and slowly pulling back. Who could blame him for wanting to get away? If he could have done it, Jim would have fled as well. He sagged helplessly against Blair, though he wanted to release him, and felt the wet sand grinding between them, a razor-lined blanket separating their bodies. Yet even if Blair had really been wrapped in the barbed wire it felt like as their chests slipped against each other, Jim knew he would not have been able to let go. That was always Blair's decision, the choice had been taken from Jim a long time ago.
But Blair didn't leave. Instead he reached up and laid one hand on the back of Jim's head and gently pulled him forward into the stream, talking to him all the while. Jim heard the drone of sound as his head was eased down onto Blair's shoulder and closer to the trickle that was landing on his arms. The water fell like mallets, smashing away sense and reason and everything Jim had ever called his own. Everything except this, Blair's small warm hand, sandy and wet, fingers carefully spread over Jim's skull.
"Let's just try it, OK?" Like the view through a camera lens suddenly coming into focus, all at once Jim could hear sense as well as sound in Blair's voice. Shuddering against Blair, moaning still, he wondered distantly what Blair wanted him to try, and why on earth Blair thought he would be capable of anything but clinging, and suffering, and crying out loud because he wasn't strong enough to bear it in silence.
"Hey, Jim, come on now. Are you even listening to me?" A paper-thin facade of annoyance that didn't fool Jim any more than it had been intended to. "Work with me here. This is important." The hand on the back of Jim's head bore down a little harder, keeping his cheek against Blair's shoulder with tender pressure. "You feel this? You feel how close we are? That's all that matters, right? I'm right here. I'm holding you, and you're holding me, as close as we can get. Jim, are you even listening to me?"
Jim was listening, but he hurt too badly to answer. He could only hold on, shaking in pain and despair, as Sandburg asked the impossible of him. "It's time to stop fighting now," Blair said. "Accept the pain, accept everything. Don't try to push anything away."
No, Jim thought. Blair, please. No more. No more.
"I can feel it," Blair pressed on ruthlessly, though his voice shook. "You're still fighting. It's not gonna work like that." His hand spread against the back of Jim's head, warm as the blessing of his affection. "Do you trust me?"
Jim heard the way he answered Blair. The moan changed only in timbre, because words were far more than he could manage while the water was beating down on him. Just a cry of frightened denial, because Blair was asking too much of him. He trusted Blair with his heart, his life, his very soul. But Jim couldn't trust himself any more. Maybe never again.
"Jim, I know you do. You always have. So trust me now. There's no enemy here, not even in your own head, so you've got to stop fighting. Let go." His voice was gentle, and Jim was tired, and hurt so much he couldn't imagine being able to fight anything. He opened his eyes, his head still resting on Blair's shoulder, and saw a tangle of hair, Blair's flesh, his own arms around Blair's back. The white tile was blinding in the near distance, the little gold stars sparkling like broken shards of glass, sharp and unfriendly.
Surely Blair was wrong. He wasn't fighting. How could he be? He couldn't remember ever fighting, not after they had beaten him to the ground the first time. They had dragged him over to the lattice and tied him up, and he had just hung there and let them cut out his heart and mind piece by ragged piece. He remembered the sound of the rain pattering down on the sand beyond the deck of the beach house. Cold at his back, stinging. The roar of the surf growing louder and louder.
No. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment. No, he couldn't go there again. He wouldn't. He had to be strong, for Blair's sake, if he couldn't manage it for his own.
Had he spoken out loud? Blair's hands moved, one spread wide sliding gently over his shoulder blades, the other still holding his head, and he told Jim, "Shhh, no, listen to me. You don't have to be strong any more. I've got you now, and I'm not going to let go. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
Jim opened his eyes again. Pain fogged his vision. Or perhaps it was the sweat rolling down his forehead, or the tears rising now that he could do nothing to stop them. The gold stars dazzled him, glistening through the film of water. They seemed to be getting larger, expanding to overtake the white background.
"Jim," Blair murmured, "Jim, it's time to open the last door. You don't need to keep anything locked up any more. It's safe. There's not a whole helluva a lot I can do for you, but I can do this. It's all right. It's safe. I love you, and you're safe now, I promise."
With a gasp, Jim let go and fell forward into a field of gold. Head over heels, tumbling on and on until he found himself on his feet again, and there it was, the door Blair had been so insistent he open. Jim hadn't even known it was there, though it must have been all along. A little door set low in a garden wall, yellow roses twining above it and the Red Heron brand fishhooks poster tacked to boards that sun and weather had bleached white.
Jim reached out, and the thorns scratched the back of his hand. Startled by the pain he drew back, putting his bleeding knuckles to his mouth. Surely it would be better to leave the door shut. There was precious little he had left to call his own any more. He hadn't realized he had anything at all, but here it was, beyond the crumbling garden wall, still carefully guarded. How had he managed to keep it protected even though his tormenter had tainted everything else he used to define himself? The man with the flat, dead eyes had pulled open Jim's heart, digging with pain and words until he exposed everything, and then laid those reeking hands upon his love for Blair; what could be more important than that? Yet here it was, the only piece of himself still unsullied, still private, still his own. And Blair wanted him to let that go as well.
So he would. Jim reached out again, more cautiously this time. Blood was beading on the back of his hand, so darkly red his skin seemed all the whiter. His fingers trembled as he worked the latch that held the door shut. It was just a loop of badly weathered leather and a peg of wood, and it should have slid free easily.
Where was Blair? Jim couldn't get the latch open on his own. The twist of leather burned his fingertips, and he was getting splinters in his hand from the wood. When he began to lose his temper, frustrated by his own clumsiness, his hand slipped and he scratched himself on the climbing roses again. "Oh come on, Chief," he grumbled. "You wanna give me a break here?"
He lifted his hand to look at the new scratches, and what he saw drove all concerns about thorns from his mind. Chains were looped around each wrist so tightly the links bit into muscle and bruised the bone beneath. His fingertips were beginning to tingle from the lack of blood. He turned, his back to the garden door, looking for the enemy who had bound him this way, but he saw nothing but a rolling green meadow spreading out before him and the woods in the distance.
If his enemy were anywhere near he must be there, crouching in the shadows of the great oaks and hemlocks half a mile away. Jim's hands clenched into fists, and the chains bit deeper, pain spiking a warning. He yanked his hands apart, snapping the chain taut between his wrists, ignoring the crippling pain in his desperation to break free. The chains only tightened further, tension digging them into his flesh like a choke collar that wouldn't loosen back out again. Nothing he could do brought him closer to release, and he knew the only hope left was if Blair could help him. Jim tried to back up another step, but the garden door was behind him. There was nowhere to go, and Blair wasn't by his side.
He looked down at his hands again. Rust stained his wrists and forearms orange, and not all the blood on his hands was from the rose thorns. A thin stream flowed down from his wrists, spreading across the backs of his hands, trickling around his knuckles and down his fingers. The more he tried to free himself, the thicker and darker the stream became. Drops pattered down on the path around him, splattering on the fallen leaves.
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