by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 18



He held Blair cradled in his arms, and tried to figure out how bad things really were. Pretty damned bad would be his guess. He had been in Limon during the '91 quake, and could remember watching in amazement as every bottle and glass in the hotel bar walked their way to the end of the shelves and smashed on the floor. When he and his buddies had finally been able to stagger outside, they'd found half the buildings on the street had walked off their foundations and lay tumbled and smashed as well.

This one seemed just as bad. Hard to be certain of anything while his senses were in this state, but he didn't think he was wrong about the severity of the earthquake. There were plenty of clues even without the evidence of his eyes and ears -- like the fate of everyone else in the garden, for instance. They were all dead, and that last furious, vicious beast wouldn't have lived much longer herself. Jim had smelled arterial blood and exposed lung tissue when he dragged her off Sandburg. Something had punched them all to shreds, every last one of Blair's kidnappers.

It must have been part of the house coming down, or maybe the entire building shaking itself to pieces in a hail of falling tiles and masonry, broken glass and collapsed beams. What else could have done so much damage? He had felt debris in his path when he first crawled to Blair. Amazing good luck he and Sandburg had both been spared.

Amazing luck? Try 'unbelievable' or just go ahead and call it an old testament miracle the two of them had survived a catastrophe which had killed everyone around them. 'Miracle' probably wasn't quite right, but if there was a word for the dark underside of miracles and wonders, Jim didn't know what it was, and didn't really even want to think about it. Besides, it didn't matter what he or anyone else called what had happened here. The facts were an earthquake had shaken the house down and made a hell of a bloody mess. Probably a lot of houses had come down in this old neighborhood. That would explain why Joel wasn't here yet. He must be helping other victims, trying to coordinate emergency rescue efforts. Probably wouldn't even be able to get through the wreckage of the collapsed house without heavy equipment. Hell, if the house was the pile of rubble Jim suspected it was, then poor Joel probably thought he and Sandburg were both gonners. If only there were some way to signal to him, let Joel know they were here, that they were alive and needed help.

His cell phone. Of course. It was a measure of how badly this had him rattled, Jim thought ruefully, that it had taken him this long to think of something so obvious.

He pulled Blair closer with one arm, releasing him with the other to reach back for his phone. There it was. Another little miracle that he hadn't dropped it. He dragged it out of his pocket, and by that time Blair had figured out what he was doing. His broad hand closed over Jim's fingers and took the phone. Jim felt vibrations in Blair's chest as Blair spoke, and then Blair pressed the phone back into Jim's hand. That was fast, especially for Sandburg. Too fast. "Did you get through?" he asked Blair, and reached up to touch his face. Blair was shaking his head.

Damn. The destruction must be even more widespread than he feared, or perhaps he'd simply broken the phone when he had fallen. They had to try and get to Joel, then, if Joel couldn't get to them. "How do you feel?" he asked Blair, spacing his words with exaggerated care, thinking he probably sounded like an idiot. "Can you put any weight on that ankle? Help us get out to the street? Find Joel?" His hand still rested on Blair's face, his fingers over his mouth, his palm curved under his jaw.

Blair spoke, shaking his head at the same time. No.

"Why not?" Jim demanded in frustration. Blair needed to see a doctor. Those cuts on his forearm were bad enough. No telling how serious his other injuries might be.

Blair's chest contracted sharply, and Jim felt a huff of air blow past his fingers resting over Blair's lips. It took him a moment more to realize Blair was laughing at him. Yeah, yeah, all right, Sandburg. So they didn't have a system worked out for answering "why" questions yet. It was all right. This was temporary. His senses would come back. He could imagine what Blair was probably saying to him now. That all he needed to do was stay calm, relax and concentrate, and everything would all be all right. It would all come back to him.

Jim left his hand resting on Blair's face, trying somehow to communicate he was calm, that he trusted Blair absolutely. A few new tears had fallen when Blair laughed, running through the blood and ash smeared from temple to chin. Jim laid the side of his hand across Blair's cheek, then tried gently to tuck Blair's face against his neck and shoulder, but for the first time Blair pulled back, almost flinching. Jim held very still for a moment, then touched Blair's chest. He felt the smooth wrongness of his shaved flesh and the gritty residue of dirt and blood, and once again Blair flinched. He even raised his hand and tried to push Jim's hand aside.

"No," Jim said out loud. He caught Blair's hand, lacing his fingers through Blair's and holding on tight. He remembered Blair crying out just before the cataclysm that had overwhelmed his senses. He remembered Blair screaming at him to get away, his face twisted in an agony of shame and terror. "No," Jim said again. He cradled the back of Blair's head, fingers slipping deeply into locks that were too soft and smooth against his hand. "No matter what they did, Sandburg. No matter what happened."

He felt Blair gasp. He didn't relax against Jim. He was talking a mile a minute, his breath hot and foul with wine and vomit, the hand that lay against Jim's side twitching and jerking, helplessly punctuating the words Jim couldn't hear. He pulled Blair's hand to himself, laying it flat against the center of his own chest, over his heart, and held it there until Blair no longer thrummed with angry, despairing words. Then he turned both their hands and laid them over Blair's chest. Blair's body shook with tension, but he didn't try to pull away from Jim again.

With one hand still on Blair's chest, the other carefully supporting Blair's head, Jim turned his face and kissed Blair's temple. He could taste sweat and blood and ashes, but beneath the filthy residue his captors had left on his body, he was still Blair Sandburg. Still the man Jim was doomed to follow to the ends of the earth. Jim had known the truth for a couple of years, and the first shock of surprise had long since faded into bemused resignation. It usually seemed to be enough for Sandburg, but right now it wasn't enough for Jim. Not when there was so much Blair needed that Jim couldn't give him. Clothes and medical attention, just for a start. A long hot shower, a soft bed. A glass of water and a couple of aspirin. Someone to talk to, someone to hear what he was saying. Even a blanket would be something. Jim had nothing to give him but the clothes off his back and the overwhelming, helpless truth of his devotion. That, at least, Blair would take from him, even if he wouldn't put the sweater on, and kept trying to wrap it over both of them. Wasn't like he intended to give Sandburg a choice in the matter, anyway. No more than Blair had ever given one to him.

He turned his head after the kiss, nuzzling his temple against Blair's. He felt Blair gasp harshly again, but this time when Blair released it, he began to let the tension go as well. His body slowly relaxed against Jim's, rolling closer when Jim urged him to. When Blair's forehead was tucked against Jim's neck, their clasped hands trapped between their bodies, he felt Blair sigh, and then begin to talk again. His hand jerked fitfully, but only because he couldn't talk without his hands, not because he was trying to get away. At length he did pull his hand out of Jim's grasp, but he reached up at once to lay his hand over Jim's ear, tracing the shell of his ear with his fingertips, and then tapping Jim's head very gently with two fingertips.

He didn't know what Blair was trying to tell him. Just reassurance, maybe, that his deafness was temporary. Or maybe he wanted Jim to concentrate, or to relax, or meditate or chant or who knew what. Even though he didn't know what Blair was saying, he thought he had the gist of it all the same, and he was telling the truth when he said, "I know," out loud. He caught Blair's hand and once more brought it down between them, checking that his T-shirt was still wrapped tightly around Blair's forearm. He couldn't feel blood seeping through the makeshift bandages, and that was one more small miracle for them. It could have been much worse.

Blair was still talking, rattling on undaunted by Jim's inability to hear him. Jim could feel the vibrations of his vocal chords, and the faint puffs of breath against his chest as Blair expressed himself more emphatically. He had taken hold of Jim's hand and brought it against his own chest, the way Jim had laid it there himself a few moments ago. He bore down gently, pressing Jim's hand flat against the denuded skin, and though it could not do either one of them any good, Jim remembered finding the crystalline salts of Blair's tears in the parking garage. Blair had been their captive for hours. While Jim had been searching for him in vain barely a quarter of a mile away, Blair had been attacked by his own students,  abducted and brutalized. They had laid their dark, blood-stained hands on the bright man Jim loved, and they had made him weep, made him ashamed, made him afraid. Stripped him and used his body as a canvas. Jim had hardly been able to look at those symbols scrawled on a whiteboard, and they had drawn them on Blair's flesh with blood. Then staked him out like a kid in a tiger trap.

Jim felt his own blood pounding hot and furious at his temples, and his blindness turned red with anger. His fear enriched and deepened the rage, because there had been a tiger in the garden tonight, and the barest glimpse had shattered Jim's senses and broken the earth beneath their feet. If such things were possible, then nothing was beyond the pale, and Jim didn't know if there could be any place for him in a universe like that.

(How could he ever protect Blair from a universe like that?)

Blair was tugging at his hand again, shifting against Jim although he stayed curled close, keeping up a steady stream of words Jim felt puffing warmly against his chest. He brought Jim's hand down and gently urged Jim to wrap his hand around Blair's opposite wrist. Jim's palm settled over the points of Blair's wrist, and his fingers curled around instinctively to feel Blair's pulse. The anger and fear didn't go away all at once, but somehow as he held Blair's wrist that way, they became easier to bear. The leather of the shackles had rubbed Blair's flesh very smooth in a wide band, and the soft skin on the inside of his arm was slightly sticky with dried sweat. Blair turned his hand in Jim's grasp, and Jim felt the flex of muscles and the press of Blair's pulse, steady and strong past bone and tendon.

Then Blair moved Jim's hand once more, pulling it up and laying Jim's palm over his throat. Jim felt the thrum in Blair's voice box against his palm, and though he still thought he understood Blair's intent without his voice, he yearned to hear the words themselves. Every last one of them, Blair's usual chaotic mix of breathtaking insights and utter nonsense as his thoughts tumbled out too quickly for the words to keep up. All he had was this, Blair lying exhausted beside him on the hard ground, talking on in silence because he, too, could not really believe Jim couldn't hear him. The buzz of his vocal chords hummed through Jim's palm, and when Jim curled his fingers to place his fingertips in the soft hollow beneath the hinge of Blair's jaw, he felt Blair's pulse once more, steadier and more sure even than his indefatigable voice. Blair let Jim's hand rest there for a long moment, but then he took Jim's wrist again and dragged his hand down to set the heel of Jim's hand squarely over his heart. Hear this, Blair was telling him. It didn't matter that Jim was deaf. Blair believed Jim could listen to the beat of his life all the same.

It couldn't possibly be that easy. Maybe it wasn't, but there weren't many other instructions Jim could understand right now. He knew how frantic and helpless Blair must feel. Jim felt the same way himself, unable even to get Blair off this cold broken ground. It would help Blair, if he thought he was doing something to help Jim. Only thing either one of them could do for the other, which was pretty funny, when you thought about it. Jim thought about it, and didn't laugh. He brushed away the moisture he felt trickling down his cheek, and then carefully freed his other hand from Blair's firm hold. He put both of his hands on Blair's shoulders and pushed him down flat. He felt the thrum of Blair's voice rise as if in protest, but Blair didn't resist being moved. Jim raised himself over him, and then, as he had done when he found Blair still alive and whole after that last chaotic, senseless attack, when Jim hadn't been able to smell anything but steel and blood, he wrapped himself around Blair and laid his head on Blair's chest.

Blair's chest hummed in surprise, but nothing startled Sandburg for long. His hands petted Jim's head, and then reached for the sweater and laid it over Jim's back, trying awkwardly to smooth it into place. Leave it, already, Chief, Jim thought, but he said nothing, concentrating instead on the warmth of Blair's back as he spread his hands under Blair's shoulder blades. He could feel the thump of Blair's strong heart beating through his back and against his palms and fingertips, as if he were cradling everything Blair was, his very life, here in his arms. Under Jim's cheek and temple, under his ear, he felt smooth flesh dirtied with blood and filth, then the prickle of curling hair in the center of his breast. Blair's heartbeat echoed against Jim's cheekbone, and resonated through the curve of Jim's skull.

Blair was still talking. His breastbone vibrated with the words Jim wasn't hearing, and every once in a while, Blair would take a long, deep breath that lifted Jim's head on his chest. Blair's hands were resting on his shoulders, holding the sweater in place. He had been trembling before, hard shudders of cold and shock, but his shivers were growing slighter as Jim held him. He wished he could get Blair to put the sweater on, but it could wait a little while longer. Blair was already calmer. Jim thought perhaps he was too. At any rate, he was relaxed enough to feel how his ribs were aching. He didn't think any were cracked. Just bruised and sore, and getting sorer. His shoulder was bad, too, his flesh abraded and raw where the last of them had hit him with a rock, the muscle underneath sore as his ribs. He'd have a devil of a time getting out of bed tomorrow morning.

He wished he could get Blair home. That's where they both needed to be. Home in bed. What a haven the loft seemed to him, and how far away it was. So many miles to go before they could sleep. Jim tightened his embrace, apologizing without words for not being able to take Blair there now. Blair took another long, deep breath, his heartbeat steady and strong, blood filling the chambers in a liquid rush, valves snapping shut with a thump. The briefest pause, and then the second thud deep in Blair's chest, a slower, fuller pressure. Over and over and over again, so regular Jim could have counted the minutes ticking past by the rate of those steady contractions.

He wasn't counting minutes or anything else. He was lying still and holding Blair, feeling his heartbeat and trying to hear it, but he was having trouble concentrating. The night was a maelstrom, and in the middle of everything, Blair was talking in a hoarse, ragged voice about going to Alaska this summer. What a thing to be worrying about now. Jim raised himself up again, groaning at the pain in his ribs, in his aching shoulder, and laid his hand over Blair's mouth. "Chief," he pleaded, and Blair's eyes flew open wide, dark and startled in the starlight. "Can't it wait?"


Chapter 19
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