Chapter 78

Jim had never been able to understand how so much implacable determination could be wrapped in emotion so gentle and unseeing. "But..." Jim tried one last time, his protest silenced by the touch of Blair's fingers over his lips.

"No 'buts'." The words were an echo of the command that had sent him away from home and Blair's safety in the first place, and brought him to this point. Jim felt his heart flutter, and for a second he hoped wildly that it would stop beating entirely and spare him what was to come. "No," Blair said, his eyes filling as he read Jim's intent. "Not like that. Please, Jim, let me help."

Then help me die now, he cried silently, but he couldn't say the words out loud, no more than he could have struck Blair with his hand. "Help me," was all that passed his lips, his voice faint and strangled with the need to stop Blair from making the worst mistake of his life.

Curling around him protectively, Blair whispered, "I am." His arms were strong as they embraced Jim, but his hands trembled where they touched his skin. Someone pulled at Blair from behind, shaking them roughly, and Blair resisted long enough to slide Jim carefully to the cold ground. Leaning forward quickly, only long enough to let his lips catch at the corner of Jim's mouth, he promised, "You'll understand, some day," his voice breaking at last.

As Blair was pulled up and away, forcibly dragged upright by two anonymous shapes that could have been men or demons, Jim raised a shaking hand to touch the corner of his mouth where Blair's kiss overlaid that of the one who had betrayed him. Life coursed sluggishly into his limbs and his breath came easier with each passing moment he was free, but his heart had gone completely dead, hanging like a cold black star in his chest.

Blair knew he was doing the right thing. The proof was in the welts rising across his own chest, the bruises and scoring around his wrists, but most of all in the strength and life flowing back to Jim as he lay upon the wet ground. His eyes were aware but anguished, and he clutched at Blair when he tried to leave him.

There was so little time. "No," Blair whispered urgently, struggling to free himself from Jim's grasp. The soldiers around them were growing impatient. "No, Jim, please be still. I've got it all worked out."

Jim didn't understand. He wouldn't let himself understand. So unyielding in his convictions when he thought justice was threatened. He'd always been that way. It was one of the things Blair loved about him, but that stubbornness couldn't help them now. If Jim kept fighting they would both be destroyed, and Blair wasn't about to let that happen. Not after so much, not when he finally had found a way to save him. "I'm sorry," he told Jim, knowing how angry Jim would be, how much Jim hated this. "But when it's all over they'll let you go, I promise. I'll tell them. I'm their emissary to the gods, so give me credit for having a little clout here, all right?"

He tried to distract Jim with his voice, but Jim wasn't distracted or fooled, not for an instant, and when Blair tried to bind his wrists together with the little roll of surgical gauze Jim fought him, as weak as he was.

The light changed as the soldiers pressed closer, grumbling impatiently. The sun was rising higher in the sky, and Blair was getting weaker. His wrists and shoulders ached, and his lungs were burning, every breath an effort. This was Jim's life he was saving, though, and so from somewhere he found the strength. He wrapped his arm around both Jim's forearms, hugging them to his chest. "I'm going to do this," he said, making his voice flat with determination. With his other hand he looped the thin white gauze around Jim's pinioned wrists. The gauze billowed out like a knight's standard, tattered and a little threadbare but pure and bright in the sunlight. "I'm going save you."

Jim cried out when he realized he was bound. Blair had time only to touch his face for an instant in farewell before the soldiers were upon him. He was lifted away with sudden violence, and for the first few instants, his body felt as light as a butterfly's wing. This wouldn't be so hard after all, he thought. He could have been floating as the legionnaires lifted him up to the scaffold. The wood was still warm from Jim's body.

He turned his head, then looked down, searching for Jim. He wanted to let Jim know that he wasn't afraid. Blair's arms were spread wide, the backs of his hands flat against the splintering boards and chipped paint. For some reason he couldn't see Jim through the confusion of soldiers standing hungry and restless before the altar. He wasn't afraid, he was not afraid, but somehow he had believed Jim would be near him at the end. Blair closed his eyes and began to feel the weight of his hanging body.

Surely it was better that Jim was gone. If their positions had been reversed, could he have borne to watch Jim tortured and killed? No, never. He would rather die.

He was going to die.

His body was getting heavier. His shoulders hurt, and the muscles in his neck were cramping. He had to take shallow breaths because it hurt too much to take deep ones. He rolled his head to the side, trying to find a position that was less painful, and looked along the length of his outstretched arm. He was tied wrist and elbow to a crosspiece of weather-beaten planking, and a fat, rusted spike had been driven through the palm of his hand.

He gasped in surprise and horror. His gasp hurt the back of his throat and made his lungs burn, but his hand hardly hurt at all. He turned his head cautiously to the other side, afraid of what he would find. That hand didn't hurt either, not really, but he closed his eyes before he could make himself look. Sure enough, when he finally opened them, he found his other hand had been impaled as well. His fingers curled numbly toward the square head of the spike. Hammering it through his palm must have broken bone, split tendon and muscle, severed nerves. He'd never spin a basketball on his finger again. Or hold a guitar pick. Or type a sentence.

Tears of shock and sudden grief welled up in his eyes. It didn't matter, he told himself furiously. He was going to die, and none of that stuff mattered anymore. Tears ran down his cheeks all the same and dripped from his jaw. That's what death meant. That nothing in your life mattered anymore.

He was afraid.

He looked desperately for Jim, no longer willing to believe Jim could have left him alone. Tears and sweat blurred his vision, and as he looked out across the soldiers, the rising sun glinted on their breastplates, blinding him. He blinked hard, trying to see, and everything shifted around him. Instead of legionnaires grimly encamped on a bleak salt marsh, a white beach stretched before him. Blair could hear the breakers behind him, smell the ocean's cold salt exhalation. The sun was hot on his straining shoulders, and he was all alone.

The beach frightened Blair even more than his own approaching death. He looked around desperately, panic swelling in his breast, frantic for Jim's presence even though he knew how selfish his fear and desire were. He was on the verge of crying out for Jim when he finally glanced down and found him at last.

His friend was crumpled at the foot of the altar, his wrists tied to the scaffold below Blair's feet, loose strands of surgical gauze fluttering around him. Blair's tears and blood pattered down on the sand and onto Jim's shoulders and back, streaking the pale, strong flesh with blood and salt water. Blair thought he saw a blurred image of patterns that had once stood for strength and invincibility, but then his tears blinded him, and once he had blinked them away, the faint traceries across Jim's body were only the marks of a clumsy, slow death happening very near at hand.

"Jim," he whispered, trying not let his voice shake. "Hey, it's all right. It doesn't hurt." The effort of speech exhausted him, and he panted for breath before he could finish what he meant to say. "It doesn't, not like it would have hurt you. Please --" He had to stop again, hording his breath and strength, and knew this was death as well, his very words stolen from him as his body failed him. "Please, I've got to know that you understand."

Jim didn't raise his head to look at Blair, but he dragged himself closer, pulling himself up until he could lay the side of his head against Blair's calf. The warmth of Jim's cheek against Blair's over-sensitized flesh was a painful surprise. Blair didn't have the strength to flinch or cry out, but Jim knew. He didn't draw away from Blair, but his shoulders trembled with grief. He still hadn't looked up, and Blair wondered how much Jim would allow himself to hear and feel of these last minutes and hours. Would he listen to the wheezing of Blair's lungs as his hanging body slowly suffocated? Could he feel the erratic, labored beat of Blair's stressed heart?

Blair already knew the answer, even as he tried to deny it by asking the question in the first place. Jim was listening to it all, feeling everything as intimately as a sentinel could. He wouldn't spare himself a single instant of Blair's death agonies, and Blair suddenly knew that Jim wouldn't survive them either. Jim's own heart would stop with Blair's if he stayed to witness the end.

"Jim," Blair whispered, and the effort of speech made his throat burn. "Get away from me. Please. Please."

Incredibly, impossibly, Jim laughed. A single harsh bark of sound, but Blair knew it was incredulous laughter. Jim didn't have the strength to look up, but he managed to speak, his head still resting against Blair's calf. "Too -- damned -- late to get rid of me now, Sandburg."

Jim knew the truth, too.

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