Chapter 35

The leaves from the climbing rose were speckled black, curling brown at the edges, and they lay on the ground around the garden gate as thickly as a new snowfall. The rose was dying. Jim's head snapped up as a bitter and utterly irrelevant memory suddenly claimed him. His mother's roses. She hadn't been gone a month before his father had brought in the new landscapers, had the bushes all yanked up, and planted the formal boxwood parterre instead. What a relief that was, he had told Jim and Stephen. Damned things were always infested and diseased. Should have been dug up years ago. Some things just weren't worth the trouble, no matter how beautiful they were. Cut your losses, he'd advised Jim with the solemnity of passing on a great truth of life.

"Sandburg, where the hell are you?" Jim groaned. His wrists hurt so badly, and he desperately wanted to talk. Run a few things past Blair, get his take on them. Like this childish lament. His mother had always spent more time on the roses than she ever did on Jim and Stephen, so why had he grieved so when they were destroyed? It made no sense. Unless it had been the idea that if they could be dug up and thrown away, anything at all could become too inconvenient to want to bother with any more.

Then something moved. Jim saw a flicker in the grass, far, far away down the meadow, the ends of the grass moving as something unseen passed between them. Jim pulled harder at his chained wrists, and this time the pain sent him to his knees. Shaking, he huddled against the garden door, his jaws clenched against the pain. He heard how ragged his breaths were. The pounding of his heart and the throb between his temples were more distracting than the pain; intense as it was, it was an old acquaintance. He couldn't make himself focus on the disturbed place in grass, and he couldn't force himself to listen to the sounds the unseen thing made as it crept closer.

He looked down again at the heavy links wound over his wrists. If he could just free himself he wouldn't feel so helpless. His hands had gone numb, his fingers clumsy and useless. Blood still dripped down, slippery under the chains, mingling with flaking rust that he felt moving along his skin like grains of sand. C'mon, Sandburg, he thought. Please. He twisted his neck around to look at up the leather hasp he hadn't been able to open, and suddenly knew the truth. He hadn't wanted to open it. This was his, dammit, all he had left, and he didn't want to give up on it. He didn't have to let it go too, no matter what anyone else said.

No matter what Blair said.

That thought took the last of his strength. Too weak even to kneel, he slipped sideways until he was curled on the low stoop below the door, guarding it still. He didn't need Sentinel hearing to make out the rustle in the grass. The tops of the grass waved even when the wind stopped, and once he thought he saw a flash of white between the moving stalks. Lying on the ground before the garden wall, he tried to lift his head because he couldn't give up, not entirely, not yet. Perhaps it was just because of the long slope of the hill and the way the sea of green moved so softly when the breeze began again, but he had no idea how close his enemy was. Groaning, he managed to get one elbow under himself, pushing himself up against the locked door, trying to see. The pressure on his shackled wrists made his vision go bloody and dark at the edges.

He dropped his head back, hitting the wooden planks behind him, and the clean, dull pain of that allowed him to focus for an instant. The grass parted as the wind blew, and he saw the long white form between the waving stalks. A man, almost prone. Dragging himself through the grass, trying to get to Jim. Long hair hung down, hiding his face.

Jim felt the rusting shackles around his heart, drawn tight with shame. The agony didn't stop him from rolling to his knees, then staggering to his feet. He fell back against the locked door, waiting for his head to clear enough to remain upright.

That locked door. Jim had been jealously guarding his last secrets here, while Blair dragged himself naked and alone across that endless field.

Jim heard himself screaming in rage and despair. He pushed himself away and tried to run, but he was weak and hurting, and his bound wrists made him clumsy. He fell and rolled twice, three times, coming to rest on his side, his arms held stiffly before him, the pain racing through his veins like a fire. Hold on, Sandburg. I'm coming, just hang on for me. He knew he wasn't speaking the words out loud, but they played over and over again in his mind, a mantra of desperation and the only hope he had left. He rolled again, getting his knees under himself, using his blood-soaked, numbed hands to push himself up until he was kneeling up high enough to look for Blair.

The broken stalks of grass under his knees had a heavy, sweet smell, fecund and green. He could scent Blair as well, but his smell was close to the grass and the earth, subtly entwined, almost inseparable from it. Other scents rose, confusing him, and he shook his head, trying to keep his sense of Blair at the fore. The smell of blood rising from his own arms, and the acrid bite of salt were closer, with the clean coolness of moving water in the background. A storm was coming. Jim could feel the crackle in the air before the light began to change and thicken with its imminence.

Somehow Jim was on his feet again, lurching forward, trying to run. The grass burned his bare feet, and thunder cracked in the distance and rumbled forward, seeming to bring with it the hot, wet gust of the storm. He could smell the yellow roses he'd left behind him.

He fell again, and he was going so fast and the slope of the hill was so steep that he rolled half a dozen times before he brought up hard. He had to lie still for a moment, panting, trying to control the wrenching ache that spread up from his arms. The sky was dark, storm clouds marching across the heavens.

Jim rolled to his side, and there was Blair, huddled in the grass just a short distance away. He was curled on his side, his knees drawn up, watching Jim carefully. His eyes were open wide, and they looked almost gray in the light of the coming storm.

Crawling awkwardly, Jim made his way across the remaining distance until he could no longer bear the weight on his wrists, then he forced himself to his knees and got to his feet. He stumbled forward a dozen steps before falling again. But he was close at last. He inched nearer, and Blair smiled a sleepy, groggy little half-grin, as though he had just this moment awakened from a long nap, and was pleased to find Jim so close. He reached out for him, and Jim saw his forearm was scratched and stained from the grass. Blair's fingers twined with his own.

Jim couldn't speak. He lay beside Sandburg there in the grass, their foreheads nearly touching. Blair's eyes were open, intent on Jim. With his free hand, the hand that wasn't holding Jim's, Blair reached down and covered as much of the rusting, bloodstained shackles as he could. Even that faint pressure was agony against Jim's lacerated flesh. He gasped, a little hiccup of pain, and desperately tightened his grip on Blair's fingers. Tensing his muscles that way made the metal links bite even deeper into bruised muscles.

"Jim," Blair said, faint reproach in his voice, but so gentle, soothing all the same. "Haven't we already been through this a million times?" He raised his hand and brushed Jim's forehead with the tips of his fingers. Forgiveness. Reassurance. Blessing. "Please let me help you."

Even then Jim wasn't sure he understood, but he nodded all the same, blinking back tears. Blair smiled at him, though his eyes were bright too, and when Jim finally relaxed his desperate grip, Blair took his chained wrists in both hands, cradling them gently. Then he curled forward and laid his cheek against the rusting links, his hair falling like silk across Jim's trembling, blood stained fingers. Jim looked at the bowed head so close to his own chest, and then lifted his eyes to glance at the lowering heavens above them.

The air smelled of rain and broken grass, and very faintly, still, of the roses. Blair was whispering something that was muffled against Jim's hands. He was holding his bound hands so carefully, but even that faint, tender pressure hurt Jim. He felt every beat of Sandburg's pulse echoing through the chains and thundering against the bone. He was afraid he couldn't stand it another moment, but he was more afraid Blair would pull away. The comfort and the pain were tearing Jim apart. He shuddered, clenching his jaw hard so not a sound would escape him, but it didn't fool Blair for a second. He curled closer to Jim, holding his hands more firmly in his own, rolling his head forward a little so that his lips touched Jim's knuckles as he spoke, loudly and clearly enough for Jim to understand him at last.

"Oh dammit, Jim, don't you know there's nothing I hate more than getting caught in the rain?"

Jim was surprised into a low, harsh chuckle. It slipped past all the boundaries and escaped into the still, moisture-laden air, an odd bark of sound that didn't seem to have come from his throat, and which hardly sounded like amusement, for that matter, but it was enough. Far away, behind him up the slope of the hill, he heard the sound of leather untwisting, of rusting nails pulling free from weathered boards.

"Blair," he murmured to the head bowed over his hands. He knew what was happening now. "Thank you." Lightning reached for the earth, jagged bolts tearing down across the horizon. Thunder rolled ceaselessly. It still hadn't begun to rain. It wouldn't until the garden door swung open.

Jim couldn't help it. He tensed, unable to banish all the fear on his own, and he couldn't help but be afraid of what was about to happen. Blair felt it, and he curled closer to Jim, pulling Jim's shacked hands against his own chest, and pressing his face to the hollow of Jim's neck and shoulder. He put his leg over Jim's thigh, as though trying to shelter him from the storm, and said in a soft low voice Jim felt humming against his throat, "I've got you, Jim. Let go."

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