by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 17



Well, if nothing else, that cover band had finally shut up. The stars were visible now, too. It was a clear, cold night, and there was no moon, just stars. Thousands upon thousands of them, glittering like a king's ransom on a field of ebony. So cold and beautiful that gazing skyward for too long made Blair feel like crying.  He finally had to close his eyes, even though he knew he would never see stars like this again in Cascade.

It seemed like a night like this should be silent, too, but it wasn't. People were shouting in the near distance all around him. "Are you OK? Are you OK?" Over and over again, different voices, different answers. Every car alarm in the city seemed to be wailing. People were sobbing and yelling, and someone bellowed in a voice like a bullhorn, "Don't strike a match! I smell gas! Nobody strike a match!"

Good thinking.Blair blinked his eyes open again. Tears blurred his view of the stars, making them dance in the heavens. The spaces in between were infinitely empty and dark. He was shaking so violently he could hear the hooks and clasps rattling against the iron trellis. A rose cane was twisted in his hair, and it pricked his cheek every time he tried to move his head. Another long cane was trapped under his back. He'd be picking thorns out his butt for days after this. Or Jim would be. Poor Jim. One of those things that had definitely never been in the job description.

Blair didn't know where Jim was. He didn't even know if Jim was still alive, and he shook his head violently, wanting to feel thorns drag across his cheek this time. The sharp, contained bite of pain seemed to clear his head, and he needed that clarity, because over the cacophony of all the other sounds, he could hear someone moving in the darkness of the garden. Whoever it was hadn't answered when Blair called, "Jim, are you there? Jim, please," and Jim would have answered him. If there was anyway he could, Jim would have found a way to answer.

So Blair needed to be very cool and level headed, because it would be more than unfair, it would be brutally stupid to have survived this long only to have Susan or one of her cronies bash his head in with a brick. He didn't doubt they would do it. They seemed all too willing to settle for simple revenge if that was all they could get. He had to ignore the despairing little voice whispering from somewhere deep down inside that if Jim was already dead, then Blair didn't really much care whether they brought on that brick or not.

Stop it. He jerked his head again, feeling the thorns across his cheek. Jim would kick his butt for thinking like that. Besides, since Jim wasn't answering him, that meant Jim needed help. So Blair had to figure out a way to get out of this and help him. He stretched his fingers, feeling for the clamps on the shackles. One leg of the trellis had buckled during the quake, and the whole structure had crumpled to the ground as it fell, taking Blair with it. He had a distant recollection of falling, but it seemed like something he had watched happening to someone else, a very long way away. He had managed to shake one ankle loose after the fall, the clamps on the shackle slipping over the end of a broken iron bar, but his bad ankle was still hooked to another leg of the trellis. He tried to scoot toward the top arch, gritting his teeth as the thorns dug into his back. If he could just reach the bars where the shackles were hooked, he thought he should to be able to work himself free. In theory, anyway.

But the rusted iron of the trellis had been bent by the fall, and he couldn't find the end of the clamps. He twisted his head around, trying to see in the darkness. The tangle of metal looked impenetrable, and the other person in the garden was getting very close. He could hear the rustle of dead leaves, and then a muffled thump, as though something soft and heavy had been pushed aside. Blair thrashed, kicking out in a futile effort to push himself up and back so he could reach the clasps, and then the trellis shook, and a hand closed on his heel.

Blair went perfectly still. It was Jim. It had to be Jim. He knew it for certain as soon as the gentle grip on his heel slid around to cradle the arch of his foot. "Jim," he whispered, his voice cracking, trying to raise his head to see. "Jim, are you all right?"

As if in answer, Jim laid his head upon Blair's foot, and Blair felt as though his heart would burst. His head fell back, and he looked up at the stars, thinking he would surely weep in sheer relief. The tears didn't come, but he lay quietly, feeling the muscles in Jim's jaw working, pressed hard to the flesh at the top of Blair's foot. Jim still hadn't spoken. Maybe he felt like Blair did, too shell shocked and lost to cope with anything except the wonder of not being dead after all.

Or worse than dead. Blair felt a memory of soft, fat bodies tumbling over his lips and a violent spasm shuddered through him, his back arching helplessly, his hands jerking against the shackles. Jim raised his head at once, his hand sliding carefully up Blair's calf. "Blair," he said, speaking out loud at last, but there was something odd about his voice. The inflection was flat, and he was speaking just a little too loudly.

"I'm all right," Blair said quickly. His own voice didn't sound like his usual self either. "I'm all right. Just, if you could get me out of this, man. The thorns are scratching me to pieces." The way his voice was rising, he was starting to sound hysterical. He took a deep, gulping breath, trying to calm down. "Are you OK, Jim? When you fell like that -- I mean, I was afraid --"

Jim sat up, moving his hands to Blair's other ankle.  His touch became even more gentle, cupping his swollen ankle through the soft leather of the shackle with one hand while he felt for the clasp that fasted to the trellis with the other. Blair heard the click when he found it, and then Jim carefully shifted his foot away from the thorns and broken iron. "Blair," he finally said, in that loud, flat voice. "I can't see you."

"Jim," Blair breathed. Then he yanked furiously at his bound hands, half-maddened at not being able to reach out to Jim. Jim flinched, startled by the violence of his movement, and Blair instantly went still again. "OK," Blair said, "OK, it's just shock or something, that's all it is, man, I'm sure of it. You just need to relax, we both do, and everything will come back."

Jim sat up and spread his hand across Blair's chest, coming to rest over his heart. He laid the fingers of his other hand lightly over Blair's moving lips, and Blair could feel his slim fingers trembling. "Blair," he said, and suddenly that flat voice spoke with dreadful significance. "I can't hear."

"Oh--" Blair's moan felt as though it had been wrenched from his chest. "Oh, Jim." Blair yanked again at his shackled wrists, uselessly. "Jim, you never should have been here. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I never should have let things go so far. I should have found a way to stop it."

Jim cocked his head, blind eyes gazing down at Blair. All Blair could see of his face was the outline of his head, and a faint white glint of his unseeing eyes. Jim brought his other hand up and felt gently across Blair's face. He found the rose branch caught in his hair and carefully pulled it free, separating one strand of hair at a time until he could push the cane away. His fingers traced the scratches that ran from Blair's temple to cheek, then cupped Blair's face in both hands. "Are you all right?" he asked in that loud, uninflected voice.

Blair nodded quickly, so Jim could feel it, and spoke out loud anyway. "I'm OK, Jim. I'm fine." He pulled deliberately and slowly at his pinned wrists. "Do you think you can get me out of this?" His voice was shaking, and he was sick with shock and fear. He desperately wanted to believe this was only temporary, that Jim's senses would come back like they always had before. But nothing like this had ever happened to either one of them. Until tonight, Blair had never even imagined such a thing could happen. If he had any choice in the matter, he probably wouldn't believe it now. He'd been drunk and scared and half hysterical, and then in the middle of everything, Mount St. Helens had blown or something. It would be enough to make anyone imagine crazy things.

Nobody's imagination had done this to Jim, though. Blair gasped, taking a hitching breath. Jim felt it at once, and he patted the side of Blair's face that wasn't scratched with thorns, before running both hands up Blair's arms and closing them carefully around his shackled wrists. "Need to get these off," Jim announced flatly.

Blair nodded again. "Yeah, good idea, Jim. I've had about enough of 'em. No more bondage fantasies for me, man." He grinned, but the smile was a dreadfully fragile one. He could feel the corners of his mouth trembling. Jim just bowed his head a little, turning his face. Blair could feel the heel of Jim's hand resting lightly against his fingers as he struggled with the hasps and the rusted iron. All the noise and chaos of catastrophe still filled the night air, growing louder as the minutes passed. Blair could hear the scream of emergency sirens. The crackle and static of police radio filled the air, and once he saw a flash of a blue and red light illuminate a dark corner of the garden. The stone walls which had surrounded the garden were rubble. Looked like the big one had hit, and he wished suddenly and a little absurdly that he could call Naomi. She'd be worried when she heard the news.

Jim grunted in frustration. His hand slipped, the hasps clanking against the iron. "Hey, Jim," Blair said, "It's OK, you'll get it." It didn't matter Jim couldn't hear him. This was temporary, anyway. Shock. It would wear off. It had to wear off.

"Sorry," Jim said carefully, and touched Blair's face again, as if reassuring himself of Blair's presence. "Sorry I'm so clumsy."

He put his fingers over Blair's lips for a moment, and Blair said, "It's OK. No rush. You're doing great." He didn't suppose Jim could really tell what he was saying just from the movement of his lips, but probably the fact he was talking at all was enough for Jim right now. He wondered if Jim's sense of touch had been affected as well as his hearing and sight, and he had to resist the urge to yank on his tethered hands again. Jim was doing the best he could; there was no way to hurry things. It was maddening to be so alone in the midst of so many people, though. Just that extra touch of frustration that made everything unbearable. If the catastrophe was as bad as it sounded, it could be hours before help would arrive, before he could get Jim to a hospital. Hours longer before Jim could expect treatment. Blair had spent enough time in ER's during the best of times. In the wake of a disaster like this, it might be days. "Please, Jim," he groaned, his frustration finding voice. "I'm worried about you. Please try to get me out of this so I can help you."

Jim shifted beside him, and then carefully straightened up. He wrapped one hand around Blair's right hand, as if to keep track of where he was, and then felt along the ground on the other side of Blair, reaching up to gently pat Blair's ribs, then moving over him. He straddled Blair's chest, placing his knee with care, then reached over Blair's head once more to twist and pull at the hardware tangled in the crumpled iron. Suddenly Jim sighed out loud, and then his hand closed around the leather of the shackles themselves. "Not thinking too clearly, am I, Sandburg?" he demanded loudly, and he almost laughed, a flat, harsh sound. "I'll have you out of here in a minute." Jim fumbled with the buckles that held the leather band around his wrist, and Blair felt a slow yielding and then night air suddenly cold across the sweaty band on his arm where the leather had encircled his wrist for so long.

Blair groaned in relief, and immediately stretched his fingers for Jim's hand, clasping it hard. "Thanks, man," he whispered intently. "Everything's going to be all right. I know it. I know it."

Jim loomed over him, a darker shadow against the star-splashed heavens. He took Blair's forearm in his hands and rubbed his wrist briskly. "It's gonna be OK," Blair said again, more urgently. It seemed important to tell Jim so even if Jim couldn't hear him. "You're going to be OK."

Jim dropped his hand to Blair's shoulder. "Careful," he said loudly. "It will probably hurt."

Blair wasn't sure what Jim meant until he tried to bring his arm down, and then, aw, shit, did it ever hurt. Muscles screamed in his shoulder and down his side. The joint of his shoulder felt as though it was rotating through ground glass. "Easy," Jim said as Blair tried to curl onto his side. His strong fingers found and pressed into the pain, firm and certain. The pressure made Blair hiss through gritted teeth, but as Jim continued massaging his shoulder for a moment more, working his way along the shoulder almost as far as his neck, and then down over the biceps, the intensity began to fade. Blair felt only a tingling in his fingertips and a dull heat in the ball of his shoulder as Jim finally took Blair's hand in both of his own, and brought it down to lay his arm across his shaved chest. "Be sore for a few days," Jim said. He could have been talking about Blair straining his shoulder at yoga, save for that dreadful flat tone of voice.

"Thanks," Blair said, and when Jim laid his fingers over his lips, he said it again. "Thanks, Jim. I think I'll live." A little too close for comfort, that crack, and a shiver ran down his spine. He felt as though he were following a very narrow trail through a mental minefield. As long as he kept his thoughts focussed on the path straight ahead, he would be able to get through the next few hours of his life. Any straying off the path, though, an incautious thought or two about what had just happened here, for instance, and everything would blow up in his face. And he simply couldn't let that happen. Not while Jim needed him.

Jim let his fingers slip down over Blair's chin, and he laid his palm over Blair's throat, as though he could understand what Blair was saying by feeling vibrations in his larynx. Blair swallowed hard and then said, "I'm all right, Jim. They didn't do anything permanent." Not to me at any rate, he realized immediately, and he raised his free hand, fingertips still trembling a little, and touched Jim's lips, and then his right ear. He had to strain to reach that high. "It will all come back, Jim. I'm sure it will."

Jim nodded as if he understood. "Have you out of here soon," he announced, and ran his hands up Blair's still-pinioned arm until he found the cuff around that wrist. Blair could feel the tug and push as Jim tried to work the strap back through the buckle, and then suddenly there was someone above Jim, blotting out the stars.

Blair screamed to Jim, which did no good at all, and then grabbed his jacket and tried yank him down out of the way. Jim huffed in surprise and ducked, but it was too late. Susan missed Jim's head with the broken paving stone in her hand, but she struck him across his shoulder so violently Jim collapsed over Blair with a grunt of agony. Before Susan could raise her arm for a second blow, he had rolled to the side and was trying to get his feet under himself, staggering on the uneven ground. "No!" Blair shouted, reaching out frantically with his free hand. "Susan, it's all over. Leave him alone."

Susan didn't speak. In the darkness, Blair couldn't see how badly she was hurt, but he could hear how her breaths rattled and wheezed. He should have heard her sneaking up on them, but he'd been so focussed on Jim he had completely missed it. Or so used to depending on Jim to keep track of their surroundings that he kept on doing it even when Jim was deaf and blind. "Susan," he screamed, "Ross didn't want this! It's over."

If she heard him, she gave no sign of it, flinging the heavy stone at Jim as hard as she could before he had managed to make it to his feet. She was too close for Jim to duck even if he'd been able to see the missile was coming. It caught him high in the chest, spinning him back and to the ground. "Dammit, Susan," Blair panted, his half-numbed fingers scrabbling uselessly against the shackles that still bound him. "I'm the one who ruined everything, not Jim. It's my fault you'll never see Ross again, not his."

"I know," Susan rasped in a voice like death, and she dropped down beside him. Her face was black with blood, and fresh drops pattered down on Blair from a terrible wound in her side. She reached into her bloody shirt pocket and produced something small and rectangular that gleamed in the starlight. "I know it's all your fault," she hissed, blood bubbling from her lips, and slashed down with the razor. Blair jerked as far back as he could, trying grab her wrist with his free hand. For a moment he had her, but she snarled like an animal and clouted the side of his face with her left hand. In the shock of the blow she was able to wrench out of Blair's grasp and slash down again, going for his throat. Blair flung his forearm over his neck and felt streamers of fire trickling over his arm as she struck at him again. He could hear himself shouting, but people were shouting and crying out everywhere. One more frightened, hurt voice meant nothing to anyone. The only one who cared might never hear him again. It was as though the dark city were here after all, as if Blair had brought it back with him when he fell, and thinking about that as he fought for his life made him want to throw his arm wide and just let Susan cut his throat after all , if it meant so much godammed much to her.

Then Jim was there again, swaying on his feet, making a sound in his throat like he wanted to scream and just didn't have the energy for it right now. Susan turned, almost rising, and swung the razor in a wide arc. Blair knew she'd cut him, because he heard the sound Jim made when she did it, and it was her last mistake. Jim knew where she was now. He caught her with both hands, dragging her away from Blair. In the starlight everything was only silhouettes and shadows. Jim did nothing but shake her, once, twice, as quick and sharp as a terrier killing a rat. After he dropped her, she didn't move again.

"Blair," he said, and fell to his knees. He crawled forward, reaching out with one hand for him. "Chief."
"I'm here," Blair said.  He was just out of reach. "Jim, I'm here, I'm all right, I'm right here." Jim's grasping fingers just missed his, and with a groan of frustration, Blair stretched his arm over his head, once more trying to free himself.  His fingers were slippery with blood, and they skittered uselessly over the slick leather. "Jim, I'm here," he gasped again, reaching once more for Jim, and this time Jim's outstretched fingers finally touched his own. Jim moaned and crawled over Blair, wrapping himself around him. His breaths were ragged and hot against Blair's shoulder, and for long moments, Jim simply held him. Blair patted his back awkwardly once or twice, but he didn't seem to have any strength left, and his arm finally fell to his side. At that Jim drew himself up, touched Blair's face and said in that loud, flat voice, "How bad?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm all right. Jim, she hurt you. Please, you've got to let me see."

Jim asked, practically, "Are there any more of them?"

Blair shrugged hard so Jim could feel it.  The gesture hurt his shoulders. "I don't know, man." He shook his head and shrugged again. "It's too dark, I don't know." Then a thought came to him. He raised his hand and touched Jim's nose. "How's your sense of smell? You can probably smell if there's anyone still here, right?" When he dropped his hand, there was a smear of his blood on Jim's face.

Jim got it. He nodded and went still. His breaths became more shallow and slow for a few moments, and then he shook his head. "Everyone around us is dead," he said flatly. He ran his hands over Blair, touching his face carefully, fingers gentle over his throat, across his chest. When he found the cuts on Blair's forearm he drew his breath in hard and sat up straighter, more affected by those wounds than by the dead students in the garden. "We need to stop the bleeding," he said.  He ran his hand up Blair's other arm, found the shackle, and this time finally worked the leather strip back through the buckle. They both groaned in relief, and suddenly, and quite insanely, it all seemed a little silly to Blair. He brought his arm down, not waiting for Jim to help him, and trying not to laugh out loud. He propped his elbow under himself, hissing and swearing at the pain. There had been times tonight when he had thought he would spend the rest of his life staked out on that damned trellis. "Lie still," Jim commanded, acting in charge even in a moment like this. "Don't try to sit up."

"No, man, you don't understand." Blair reached back and finally grabbed the twisted rose cane that had been digging into his back all along. He pushed it aside and then fell back with a gasp. "You don't know how good that feels." He was still on the verge of laugher and he breathed hard through his nose, trying to control it. Above him, Jim shrugged his coat off his shoulders and pulled off his sweater and the T-shirt underneath as well. The white cotton gleamed in the starlight, save for the darkness on one side. "Jim," Blair said, laugher disappearing at the sight of blood. There, low on his side, just above his hip was a long curving cut shaped like a crescent moon. "Jim," he said again, miserably, and reached out to touch the wound, shivering as he tried to feel how deep it was. Jim caught his fingers and brought them down.

"It's not bad," he said. He laid Blair's arm down across Blair's chest, then folded the T-shirt and wrapped it tightly around Blair's forearm. "Joel's here," he said. "Out on the street. He can help us.  Rest for a minute and catch your breath, then we'll go get him." He raised Blair's shoulders, gently rolling him to his side and out from under the wreckage of the trellis, then laying his coat upon the ground for Blair before easing him down again. The lining was warm from Jim's body, and Blair hadn't realized until that moment how cold he really was. Jim crouched beside him, holding the sweater for him.  "Can you get this on?"

Blair reached up, his fingers all pins and needles, grasped Jim's forearm instead of the sweater and tugged him down. Jim curled obediently beside him on the cold ground, and didn't resist when Blair awkwardly lifted the sweater and draped it over both of them as best as he could. He only laid his arm over Blair's chest, reached up to cradle his cheek, and when slow tears of shock and exhaustion finally began to trickle down Blair's face, Jim wiped them away with his fingertips.

Chapter 18
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