Chapter 56

"Wait, wait, slow down, Sandburg. If Jim is hurt, we need to get him taken care of, all right? I just want to help you here." It was like talking to a crazed jumper on a ledge, or one of those nutballs who phoned in bomb threats. Simon had always hated those negotiation exercises, and found himself realizing most of his conversations with Blair had that same out of control feeling. How does Ellison deal with it? "I don't know what happened last night. Things were sloppy in this operation and there will be an investigation, you can bet on it. So let's just calm down and do what's right." Moving toward his car, he motioned Taggart to follow him. Keeping Sandburg talking was never a problem, so he was confident he could stall long enough to reach wherever it was the obviously distraught man had stashed Ellison. "Now, can you tell me what's wrong with him? We'll get him the help he needs, I promise you."

"Blair." Jim's voice was so soft, a whisper of heat against Blair's chest. He reached his hand up and wrapped it around Blair's wrist, those gentle fingers laid across the back of Blair's hand, thumb moving over the tensed muscles on the inside of Blair's wrist where he gripped the receiver violently.

"I know, Jim," Blair whispered, grieving, not even bothering to cover the phone. "I'm sorry." He stroked his hand over Jim's head again and then told Simon in a voice that sounded odd and distant, "There isn't anyone else who can help Jim. It's his senses. They're all messed up, out of control." He bent forward over Jim, as if his body could shelter them both from what he had to tell Simon. He took deep breaths, hissing a little as he struggled to get the words out. "They tortured him with a cattleprod, Simon, and now his control's shot all to hell. It overloaded his senses so badly that --" Blair swallowed hard. "When I got to him, he was trying to drown himself."

"Jesus, Sandburg." Simon felt the shock like a physical blow, the sound of unbearable grief in Blair's voice leaving a blank, helpless feeling behind. Somehow he knew Blair would have sounded like that if Jim had really been dead, and it frightened him more than he wanted to admit even to himself. He paused at his car, standing within the open door, looking over the roof to where Taggart stared back at him quizzically from the other side. This was the sort of problem Simon was supposed to be good at solving, but he had the uncomfortable feeling he was completely out of his depth.

Jim released his wrist and wrapped his arms around Blair's ribs again, otherwise not moving at all. He seemed so calm Blair almost believed it, until he felt the moisture on Jim's cheek.

"Jim," he breathed, "Oh, Jim, you don't have to --" He didn't know what he wanted to say. He set the phone aside, spreading his hand over Jim's face, trying to curl somehow closer to Jim, his arm around Jim's shoulders, his cheek pressed to the top of Jim's head. "I'm right here, Jim. I've got you, you know that." The back of his throat ached with his own tears. "Jim," he said again, more quietly, but his voice was still sandpaper rough, and it grieved him, illogically, as though what hurt him to say must hurt Jim to hear. "Are you in pain? Is something hurting? You -- you've got to tell me. I don't know how to help otherwise."

Jim's arms tightened for a moment. His head moved against Blair's chest. "It doesn't hurt where you are," he whispered to Blair. "It couldn't."

Blair breathed out a sudden sigh, so sharp it could have been laughter. Laughter, tears, they were all the same now; both the sounds of overwhelming emotion as it came roaring through the lost barricades of control. "I know that's not true, Jim," he whispered hoarsely. "I know stuff's hurt you. The shower, everything. But I promise you it'll get better. And I promise I'll be with you the whole way." He covered Jim's eyes for a moment, then petted the side of Jim's head gently and stroked his thumb across the rise of Jim's cheekbone. "We're going to come back together," he said, his voice still soft, but not whispering any more. "Don't even have to ask. You're stuck with me." He stroked his fingers down across Jim's face until his hand cradled Jim's jaw, the pulse in Jim's throat steady against his fingertips. "I won't leave you." His cheek was still resting on the top of Jim's head. "I couldn't. I love you."

The sounds came through only faintly on his cell phone, Blair's voice muffled and so quiet Simon couldn't make out the words, just the tone, the grief and affection coming through with heartbreaking clarity. He didn't know if the pained sympathy he felt was more for Sandburg or Ellison. He had never been able to guess which of them was suffering more acutely no matter who was injured. "Blair...." he tried, having to clear his throat as he spoke.

With Jim wrapped so closely around him, Blair felt the response in Jim's tormented body before Jim even managed the words. Jim's pulse seemed to beat faster under his fingers, and his whole body flinched, not in pain, but as if in helpless reaction to the power of spoken truth. "I know," Jim murmured at last, his voice heating Blair's breast. He shifted against Blair, drawing his left arm back so he could lay his own hand on Blair's chest, beside his face. His palm bore down with a steady warm weight. "My strength," he said, his voice the very breath of love. "My heart."

"Blair, are you still there?" Simon pitched his voice louder, hoping it would carry through the tinny speaker on the other end.

"I won't let anything happen to you," Blair promised desperately. His very soul seemed to ache with the renewed knowledge of Jim's love and trust. "No matter what, I'll keep you safe." He cradled Jim's head to his chest once more before he reached for the phone. "Simon -- " He took a long, shuddering breath, trying to keep his voice level. "I'm the only one who can help Jim right now, so you have to back me up on this. You've got to give Jim the chance to get better. There's no other way. Please. Please, Simon, you've got to."

There was a long silence. "Look, I can't do much from here," Simon finally offered, the blustering air of command gone. He hated admitting he couldn't do anything, but strangely enough, it didn't feel as sickening making the confession to Blair as it did with anyone else. "So much went wrong with this case that everybody's already covering their asses for the inquisition afterward, and every minute of time is being logged and documented. I can't get anyone down there to take you home without the FBI knowing and sending along a pair of goons for Jim's debriefing."

He glanced over the car at Taggart, who was carefully scanning the barely organized chaos taking place in the smoky open area where the house had stood. His expression was neutral, and he was broadcasting "I'm not listening" vibes with nearly comical intensity. The wonderful thing about Joel was that when he decided he shouldn't be listening to something, he was able to actually tune it out. Simon lowered his voice, all the same. "I can stall by not telling anyone the body we have isn't Jim, but that's as much as I can do, and it will only hold for a day or two until the dental comparison is done. Then we have to start looking for him, you understand?"

"So they're all dead?" Blair said, and felt no shame at the relief in his heart. "The men who did this to Jim are all dead?"

There was a time when Simon would have been glad to hear such a normal reaction from Sandburg, but the overtones in that voice were anything but welcome. He'd known Blair wasn't fragile, but he hadn't ever realized how savage he could be. Any last reservations about Jim being in the right hands evaporated. "Yes," he said firmly, quashing any hint of doubt in his own mind so there would be nothing for Blair to pick up in his voice. "Nobody got out of the house before it went up. We haven't found any survivors."

"I'll call you if we need you," Blair told him, thinking there didn't seem to be anything else to say. "Jim's gonna be all right, I know he is." Then he put the phone down with the sense of having won one more battle, not waiting to see if Simon had had anything else to say either. "Did you hear, Jim?" he whispered, stroking the bowed head pressed to his chest, "It's all over."

With a sigh, Simon closed the connection on his phone and backed out of the car's door frame, then shoved the door closed with enough angry force to rock the vehicle where it stood. Taggart turned wide, startled eyes on him and asked in bewilderment, "We're not going?"

"That wasn't Blair," Simon said with precise deliberation, staring Joel in the face. "Jim's not alive."

Joel nodded sadly. "I was afraid not," he agreed mournfully, and backed away from the car himself, closing his door much more softly than Banks had. When Simon indicated with a toss of his head that he didn't need any more assistance, Taggart squared his shoulders and moved back toward the wreckage of the beach house, his somber expression firmly back in place.

It wasn't over, Jim knew better. Bits and pieces of it might be over, as the years he had lived were parts of his life that were over, but this would never be "all" done with. Too much had been broken, too much given away or taken from him, things he would never be able to recover or rebuild. He felt the tears building in his eyes, rolling hotly over his skin and cooling quickly, leaving cold trails behind. Gone, everything was gone, and he had helped in his own destruction, throwing away what was left when Blair asked him to. He squeezed his eyes shut, and the hot stinging tears still found a way to escape.

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