Chapter 77

An instant of shocked silence descended upon the crowd, and Blair felt the weight of dream logic driving him irresistably forward. He had said the right words, taken the fatal step, and although there was nothing for him to do now but wait for the inevitable flow of events to carry him along on the path he could already see through to its end, it was still hard to see the way Jim's head swung up. It was harder still to watch Jim's dulled eyes suddenly spark with anguish. "Blair," he moaned, the only person speaking a word under the entire expanse of dull gray sky, and there was such despair in his voice, he might have been speaking for all the hurt in the universe. "Blair, no."

Blair squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes," he murmured for Jim's ears alone. "I'm sorry, Jim, but you have to let me do this." When he opened his eyes again, it was to see the centurion making an abrupt gesture, angry and obscene. Two legionnaires moved toward Jim, but Blair was faster, climbing to Jim's side at once. "I'll do it." The climb was not as difficult this time, the stones of the altar steady under his feet as he reached up to free Jim's arms.

The welts from the lash crossed Jim's body in neatly spaced stripes, nothing but the slow oozing of blood marring the symmetry of the torturer's art. The knotted ropes that bound Jim parted easily under Blair's hands, falling away and vanishing. Jim was shaking his head, half frantic with misery, but too weak to do more. "It's better this way," Blair told him, cradling Jim's face to stop his useless thrashing. "It'll be me now instead of you." Jim's right arm fell heavily once Blair pulled away the ropes, and he had been hanging for so long the change in position wrenched a hoarse scream from his throat. Blair cried out with him, and catching his forearm, pulled it over his own shoulder. "It's over now," he whispered urgently, leaning into Jim and trying to take as much of his weight as he could while he pulled at the ropes binding Jim's other arm.

It did seem that the bloody weals were already a little less vivid. "I can take it all away," Blair said, his voice trembling a little as he realized his greatest wish was coming true. He felt the shadow pains across his own chest, long blisters rising slowly under the skin, but they were such a small thing, if this were the price for Jim's life. There was a new ache around his wrists as well, and Blair raised his eyes, looking at his hands as they plucked at the ropes that still bound Jim. Dark, angry bruises had appeared around his own wrists, and as the final ropes gave way at last and Jim sagged into his arms, Blair glimpsed red-black striations rising through his own bruised flesh. The pain seemed to go as deep as the bone, but it was far less urgent than the welcome weight of Jim's body and the sound of Jim's breaths, still gasping harshly, but stronger as the life came back to him.

"Blair," he whispered, as Blair somehow found the stength to lift him down from the altar and lower him to the ground. Jim's weight filled his arms, but didn't overwhelm him. He knew Jim's legs were dragging along behind, and he was sorry he couldn't straighten his twisted limbs as he knelt, cradling Jim's head in his arms. "Blair," Jim whispered again, reaching up to clutch at Blair's arm, and Jim's grasp burned the welts rising on Blair's biceps. "Please don't do this. Please."

"Hush," Blair told him. The boggy ground was squelchy and too soft under his knees, and his shoulders and chest hurt, as though he were slowly suffocating, but he was still strong enough to hold Jim tenderly. He bent his neck and laid his cheek for a moment on Jim's forehead. The light changed, and Blair knew the soldiers were standing around them, waiting. He kept his voice from shaking as he promised Jim, "It's up to me now. I can do this."

Jim gasped, shaking his head against Blair's chest. "No," he insisted, his voice growing stronger. He released Blair's arm and reached up to knot his fist in Blair's hair, close to his temple. He dragged Blair's head down until they were almost nose to nose. "If you love me," Jim said, every word vibrating with such intensity Blair felt a charge in the air like an electrical storm, "If you love me, don't do this."

Blair covered Jim's hand with his own, his fingers between Jim's, and tugged gently to free himself from Jim's desperate grasp. He folded Jim's hand down to his chest and held it there so Jim couldn't reach for him again, and he put his other hand over Jim's mouth to stop his protest. "I do love you," Blair said, and had to close his eyes for a moment to shut out the sight of tears welling in Jim's eyes. "That's why I have to do this."

He felt Jim's tears touch the back of his hand, and he knew their time together was almost over. He felt a vague sense of shame at his cowardice then, and he opened his eyes as he carefully raised Jim's head just enough to shift him onto the ground, since he wouldn't be allowed to hold Jim any more. Jim cried out, and Blair had time only to touch his face for an instant in farewell before the soldiers were upon him.

Jim felt the iron chains holding him in place go as cold as his heart, everything around him collapsing into a lightless void that bore no resemblance to the welcoming white emptiness he had nearly lost himself in. For a moment he prayed he had misunderstood what he had heard, but even as he framed the thought, scattered and frantic in desperate fear, the tightening knot of ice in his chest knew otherwise. No other voice could have cut through to him like that, brought him back from the infinite peace where nothing else followed, and given life back to him when he no longer wanted it. He wished it did not have that power, for both their sakes.

The first gentle touch at his wrist drew a cry from him more anguished than the touch of the heated poker had earned, for in all its probing it had never touched his soul. Blair's hands released him from the chains, palms sliding over Jim's skin, warm where Jim's skin was cold, and soothingly cool where pain had left ragged heat as a memento of its presence. Around them the jeering of the gang of thugs had died, leaving only the sound of the sea and the quiet sound of Blair's breathing as he worked, and Jim concentrated on believing they were alone. If he could control his fear, he knew he could make everything else go away, leaving nothing but Blair's healing touch and the sound of his voice, and the peaceful haven of the loft around them. The light would be coming in low and golden through the windows, dust motes slowly circling like ponderous galaxies in the wide, warm beams.

The vision was gone in the next moment, as agony flared across his shoulders when his arm was released to fall to his side. All the light and warmth of the loft's illusion vanished, leaving the cold darkness around him broken only by the oasis of clear blue in Blair's eyes shining so close and intently as he began untwisting the chain on Jim's other arm. "No," Jim moaned, forcing the word past the weight in his chest. He tried to reach for Blair with his freed arm but could barely move it, the muscles tingling and useless as the circulation returned slowly.

Blair shook his head, somehow continuing to free Jim while his gaze stayed on Jim's face. "Shhh," he whispered, the gentle susurrus of his breath touching Jim's skin, warm and real as his hands taking away the weight of iron. "I want to help, so just shut up and let me do this, OK?" When he turned his head to look at what he was doing, the trailing ends of his hair brushed over Jim's face in echo of his voice's touch.

When Jim's other arm came free of the chains and dropped like a dead weight, Blair caught it, pulling it around his shoulders as he turned back toward Jim and slid an arm around his waist as well. It was necessary, Jim found, because his legs were weak and uncooperative, threatening to fold under him. It had been a long time since he'd been so scared he'd felt that peculiar weakness in his knees, and he hated himself for feeling it now, when he most needed the courage to stand up and refuse to let what he loved be taken away from him.

As Blair turned and gently lowered Jim's useless body to the wet, sandy ground, Jim realized the most difficult part to accept was that what he loved wasn't being taken away by force, it was leaving of its own accord. But then it had always been like that, his whole life, so there was no reason to expect anything else. He looked up into Blair's face and knew that the one thing he had ever really wanted in his life was what he had found in this friendship, and when it was gone, he would cease to exist as well. It would be a welcome end when it came, but he could not face what lay before that merciful departure. "You can't do this," he said desperately, reaching upward weakly as Blair cradled him for a moment, but nothing he could say seemed able to cross the lake of love in Blair's kind, shadowy eyes. "Don't you understand? I can't watch them hurt you, I couldn't stand it."

Blair smiled with all the patience he would have shown a slow child. "You idiot," he said with infinite fondness. "How do you think I feel seeing you like this? Trust me, my way is much easier."

"Not for me!" Jim cried, all the selfish need he had ever felt let loose in one agonized burst of self-pity. He was ashamed of it, and of his weakness in letting Blair see it, but even that shame would be an acceptable price if it could make Blair see this sacrifice wasn't worthwhile.

"Maybe not now, but it will be." Earnest and sincere, Blair was trying as hard as he could to make Jim believe with him.

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