Chapter 36

Up the hillside and far away, the hasp broke, and long rusted hinges screamed in protest. The sounds were clearer than ringing crystal over the din of the storm. Jim began to tremble. "Hold me," he breathed, not meaning to speak the words out loud.

"I am," Blair said, voice hoarse with the intensity of his compassion. "Jim, I am."

I know, Jim thought, and relaxed at long last utterly into Blair's fierce embrace. The garden door smashed open wide, and the only part of himself that Jim had been able to hoard from his torturer blew out into the storm.

And how unworthy it was. How petty his secret seemed while he lay close to Blair in the grass. There was a smell in the moisture-laden air like a musty basement or a long shut-up attic being opened at last. Though his back was to the garden door, Jim saw it emerge anyway, the hard, dark knot that comprised his innermost fear and despair. It was every failure he could claim as his own, with each one's attendant grief and shame. Hoarded to himself, the core of his fear and determination, held close even though its presence was nothing but pain.

What a tangled foundation upon which to build the man, but it had been Jim's. Never stop fighting, never give in, because you never knew when the one failure that would be just one too many would slip through and destroy everything. As it finally had tonight.

The heavens opened with a roar melding into the constant thunder. Jim felt the downward rush long before the water struck them, and knew how badly it would hurt. He tried to tuck himself closer to Blair, wanting to shield Blair from the coming downpour if he could do nothing else. With his hands still bound he couldn't wrap his arms around Blair, so he pushed Blair onto his back, in the same motion crawling over him until he was curled forward over him, his forearms on either side of Blair's head.

"Jim," Blair whispered, "Hold on."

Then the rain fell like a hail of bullets. The deluge tore through Jim, worse than he'd ever imagined it could be. He collapsed over Blair, screaming under the onslaught. His secret dark heart had been his last pitiful defense against the pain, his last, lonely claim to a self, unworthy as it was. And now everything had been lost. He should have released Blair long before. He should have released them both. He should have found a way to die.

Jim opened his eyes, but he didn't understand what he was seeing. White tile, mildewed grout, tiny gold stars sparkling. The pain broke everything, wrenched his very soul from its moorings. The scene changed back as he drifted, and he saw again the damp grass, broken and wet, and Blair's bare shoulder, dirty and grass-stained. Though the pain lasted only for an instant, it was unendurable, and so it seemed to Jim as though it never ended. Then he heard a sound behind them, a wet, muffled implosion, something dank and unwholesome collapsing in on itself as the rain washed it away.

The darkest center of his heart. The hopeless secret behind the garden wall.

It was over. There was nothing hidden anymore.

The shackles were gone. He realized it only as he was wrapping his arms around Blair's shoulders. Blair embraced him in turn, his arms around Jim's neck, holding on hard, and there were no barriers anymore. Blair had seen everything, even the darkness behind the garden wall, and he loved Jim anyway. His love had set Jim free.

Jim clung to him, gasping. The pain hadn't ended, but it was muted and so unimportant at last. All that mattered was the shuddering intensity of Blair's love for him. The grassy lawn was gone, and the rain smelled of salt and the sea. The two of them stood on a pristine white beach in the heat of mid afternoon. The ocean was bluer than the sky and the sand under their feet was brighter than the sun. Jim cradled Blair close against his chest and, looking down, he could see the marks of strength looping around his own forearms where they crossed Blair's back, and the thicker, crosshatched lines that spread down Blair's back all the way to his ankles. Blair nestled his head closer with a sigh, his arms tightening around Jim's back in turn. The white sand wasn't too bright, and the sand underfoot didn't hurt him, but what he noticed most was that Blair's hair was dry, and felt so soft against his chest. He raised one hand, wonderingly, and ran his fingers through the curling locks. A future had been given back to him, and he realized he wanted it.

The white light on the beach changed. Still bright, but shot through with gold, and the pain was a little more difficult to ignore. Jim closed his eyes, accepting the knowledge it would get worse and knowing he could bear it if he had to, because Blair was here in his arms, and would never leave him. When he opened his eyes, the lines of strength on his own arms had once again become the traces of torture and shame. Raw flesh, darkening bruises snaking up the inside of his arm, crossing the bones in the back of his hand. It was raining again, water trickling down Blair's back and over his own arms. The rain stirred the sand and washed it away slowly. The grains felt like steel wool on his abraded flesh as they tumbled end over end. The salt burned, and Blair's warm head, pressed hard to Jim's chest, was crusted with sand, scraping the burns there when he moved.

No, not rain. They weren't outside anymore. Blair had gotten them to safety, to shelter. Blair was taking care of him, as he always had. "It's all right," Jim whispered hoarsely, to hear himself say it out loud. The shifting madness had stilled at long last. Though the pain had struck so deeply at everything he once held as true, Blair had brought him home again. Easy tears of gratitude and relief came to Jim's eyes, and he wrapped his arms around Blair more firmly, holding him tighter under the trickling stream of water.

Blair felt the change too. "Aw, Jim," he said, and he patted Jim's back very gently. He sounded as though he were on the verge of tears as well. "I knew you could do it. You can do anything." He snuffled a little laugh, then let his arms slide as far around Jim's back as he could reach and squeezed a little too hard.

Jim didn't complain. "It's all right," he whispered to Blair, hugging him back and not minding the grating of sand or the painful twinge in his right wrist and across his sore shoulders. "Going to take all day to get the sand off at this rate," he pointed out gently.

Blair's head nodded against his chest. "I know." He took a deep breath, and Jim felt the swell of his chest against his own, then the pressure fading away as the air was carefully released. "Are we in a hurry?" Blair asked quietly, his embrace kind and patient as if he could stand there all day, wet and half-shivering under the slow trickle of water.

Jim's gaze tracked from the glaring gold specks in the white tile back to the dark colors of his bruised arms crossed over Blair's back, and he wondered at how the fear was all gone. The last of it had not even left a trace behind. He knew more water would hurt more, but the prospect didn't frighten him. It was barely important at all. Jim tried a small smile, pushing it past the pain so it would warm his voice. "Depends," he husked, surprised himself at how rough the sound still was. "How much hot water does this place have?"

In the circle of his arms, Blair's ribcage heaved with the breath of an answering laugh. "Not that much, man." One hand slid carefully down Jim's back and along his side, releasing him with reluctance. "I'm going to turn the water up just a little bit now, if you're gonna be OK with that."

"No." Jim shook his head and held on tighter for a moment. Blair stopped moving instantly, only pressing against him a little more strongly as if to remind Jim of his presence. "Let me."

The tiny sag of relief was Blair's agreement, and the way his hand retraced its path up Jim's back until he was holding him solidly once again. "Whatever you want, Jim, you know that now," he whispered, and turned his head to rest the point of his chin over the long curve of Jim's neck. As he spoke, the underside of his jaw pressured the strong muscle there. "Just let me know how to help you, that's all I ask."

That was all Blair had ever asked of him, Jim knew with sudden insight. From the very beginning. "Didn't tell you before." He heard himself, and his words sounded like a moan. He broke off, wanting to say it better, more clearly. Blair deserved to hear it that way from him.

"Just let me know," Blair murmured, his voice low and almost sleepy, his hands barely moving on Jim's back.

With Blair in his arms, nothing else mattered. Not the past, not even the future. He looked up at the water trickling down and knew he would survive more than that, no matter what it felt like. The ability had been given to him as a gift by the man he held so close, so dear to him. "I love you," he said, and his voice was strong and steady and calm, so he said it again. "Blair, I love you too."

For a moment Blair shook against him, breathing suddenly ragged, then his arms tightened and he said, just as calmly and steadily, "I know, Jim, I know." His head turned and he laid his cheek along Jim's collarbone, his forehead tucked against Jim's neck. "It was so clear," he whispered.

Jim's throat closed and he bowed his head over Blair's, swallowing hard. His lips moved, but he had no breath, and his final "I love you" was silent. With his right hand, he reached up and pulled the towel off the showerhead, and let it drop over the edge of the tub where the curtain met the wall. Even before the soggy weight plopped heavily onto the enameled steel, the pitiful force of the unobstructed water flow struck them. Blair flinched in surprise, though it could not have hurt. Sand moved from the trailing ends of his hair, coursing down his back in the stronger stream, cascading over Jim's forearms like an avalanche of ground glass.

It couldn't really be cutting and burning him, Jim knew that, and he forced his shaking arms to let go a little their desperate hold on Blair. Sandburg took an immediate deep breath, as if the air had been crushed from his lungs, but he didn't complain, and his own hold on Jim stayed locked tight, the length of his body pressed to Jim's and keeping him upright. "See?" Jim said, and had to say it again to make the sound come from his throat. "Easy."

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