Sapphire ran the tips of her fingers lightly across the top of the smooth handrail. The metal was silent, no longer thrumming with the pull of despair that had lured several people to endlessly wander across it, ultimately flinging themselves from the bridge to the sluggish waters below. The river was a perfectly survivable distance down, but by all accounts none of the victims that had disappeared into the forever fog-filled night had ever reached the water.
The metal was also plinking gently as it warmed under the growing sunlight. It was the first morning the bridge had seen in some time, cocooned in its own slice of night as it had been. Sapphire looked down the length of the bridge – now an ordinary length – to where Steel had withdrawn stiffly from his contact with one of the main support struts and nodded to him. “It's clear.”
“Good,” Steel muttered through stiff lips, squinting away the frost that was thawing off his eyelashes. “Enough of this place, then. Where to next?”
“I think we ought to get you warmed up first,” Sapphire suggested lightly. “We don't have the information for our next assignment yet, so we have some time. Relatively speaking.” She strolled down the bridge to him, her boots echoing softly on the grating. “Where would you like to go?”
Steel shrugged with some difficulty. “You pick this time.” The inside of his head felt as rigid as his body, as though he'd become his name in truth.
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “We might as well try some place we haven't been. The tropics?”
“If you like.”
“Off we go, then.” Sapphire hooked her arm around his, and stepped.
The bridge was empty, two frosty handprints on the central strut melting silently away.
From a cool summer morning in northern climes, the island they landed on was like walking through a wall of heat. Steel threw up one hand briefly against the light until his eyes adjusted, then took stock of where they'd ended up.
The beach was moderately sized, golden sand backed by some pale rocks, assorted palm trees, and vividly green shrubbery. Looking out to sea, the water was a crystaline grey-blue, deepening in hue further out. He could already feel his joints loosening under the sunlight, and sank down to the warm sand with a barely audible sigh.
Sapphire sat down next to him with a swish of fabric. She'd altered to match the environment, and sported a knee-length sundress the color of the clear sky above them which left her arms bare and was belted with a deep blue sash. “Feeling better?” she asked kindly, ducking her head a bit to meet his eyes.
“It could be warmer,” he managed, locking down on the shivers that manifested as his temperature rose. Even in his full suit it felt as though the heat couldn't reach deep enough. And the white noise in his head wavered at the edge of his senses like a mirage, there no matter which way he turned.
She tsked sympathetically. “Lead should have been there, but they said he couldn't get away. Maybe if we buried you in the sand...”
He raised an eyebrow, pressing his lips together – half to stop them from trembling, half in disapproval – and she laughed softly. “Perhaps not, then.”
They sat in silence for some time then, as Steel regained his finer motor functions. The waves hissed against the sand hypnotically, and Sapphire seemed content to simply gaze out at the horizon, pretending not to notice the occasional tremor that ran through him. At length, when he was breathing easier, she tilted her head to look at him out of the corner of one eye.
“You're still on edge, Steel. Was this a bad one?”
His eyelids dipped fractionally. You know it was. He knew she could sense the uneasy pressure in his head, built up like ice crystals but much harder to thaw.
She hesitated a moment. Do you want me to take you down?
The air seemed to hang for a moment, filling with the weight of the question. Then the moment dropped, and Steel drew in a breath.
Sapphire stood gracefully, and rested a hand on his shoulder for a moment. “Take off your jacket and kneel facing the sea,” she said softly, dragging her fingers along the dark grey fabric as she moved away. “I'll be right back.”
He ducked his head, eyes closing briefly, and undid the buttons of his suit jacket slowly, letting it slide off his shoulders before shifting to his knees and staring out at the wind-ruffled water. Behind him the rustling, snapping noises ceased as Sapphire finished collecting palm fronds and returned to his side.
“Arms behind your back, wrists crossed,” she instructed calmly, and he obeyed, feeling the silk of his shirt stretch tight across his chest with the new position. Sapphire seated herself next to him, and began splitting and plaiting the palm fronds. When he realized what she was doing, an involuntary breath left him in a hiss.
You're making a whip.
“Quite right,” she agreed, fingers weaving the pieces deftly.
Where did you learn that?
She laughed. “You'd be amazed at the things one picks up.” Tucking in the ends, she stood once more, facing him. “Now. Blindfold or no?”
“Bindings or no?”
She hummed thoughtfully, then reached around and untied the decorative sash of her dress, pulling the length of fabric through her hands as she moved to kneel behind him. “Safeword,” she demanded, winding the cotton around his wrists firmly.
“I hardly think that's--”
“Don't overestimate your body, Steel,” she cut him off sternly. “Safeword.”
“Alright.” She pulled the tie snug and straightened, retrieving the plaited whip from the sand next to him. It brushed against his side and he twitched reflexively, but otherwise remained still.
Steel heard the movement of air, but the first blow still caught him by surprise, landing heavily on his right shoulder blade. He rocked with it, chin coming up in a silent challenge and nostrils flaring as he pulled a slow breath. The next wrapped around his ribs on the left side, a stinging kiss he felt right through the thin fabric of his shirt.
The fronds were too stiff to be a proper whip, and Sapphire had turned the end into more of a club than a tail, but she flicked it so quickly that Steel barely had time to register the contact before a new area of pain blossomed on his back. Over and over her arm rose and fell, and with each strike his head emptied a little more, his concentration dwindling to a single point of breathing from one moment to the next.
Steel, do you need to give your safeword?
He realized he was bent over, forehead brushing the ground with each breath, and his back was on fire. Figuratively. She had spread the blows evenly across his skin, applying them seemingly at random but adding up to a unified whole that felt like his heart was going to beat through his skin.
Defiance rose, the white noise crept in from the edges, and he started to raise his head. It wasn't enough, not enough not enough--
Her hand on the back of his head forced his face back to the sand, the grit pressing into his forehead. “Safeword?”
“Very well.” Sapphire fisted a handful of his hair and pulled smoothly back until he was sitting unsteadily upright again, neck stretched tight against her hold. His throat worked on a swallow, breathing slow and deliberate. “I'm going to retie your hands,” she told him, releasing his hair just this side of ungentle and stooping to pluck at the knot at his wrists.
His shoulders complained as the sash came loose, and she helped him work the stiff muscles, digging her fingers into the meat of his shoulders and arms until he hissed in pain but was able to move easier. Then she retied his hands in front of him, stood, and pointed at the ground.
“Lie out flat on your stomach, so you won't fall over. Arms above your head.”
Steel did so slowly, feeling his back twinge with each motion, and stretched his arms out. From the corner of his eyes he watched her circle slowly around him.
“How attached are you to that shirt?”
“It's not even real,” he pointed out, slightly muffled.
She did something to the end of the whip, and let it uncoil to dangle near his cheek where he could see it. Steel drew in a slow breath, feeling his insides tighten – in fear or anticipation, he wasn't sure.
Sapphire had undone the end of the whip, turning the club into a cat-o-ninetails. The edges of the palm fronds were keen enough to draw blood.
She paused, giving him ample time to understand her intentions. Then she drew her arm back. “Face down, Steel.”
The strike laid his skin open in a handful of places, tearing into the fabric between his shoulder blades. He felt it in a bloom of searing lines on already bruised skin, couldn't help the hoarse shout that escaped him. All rational thought fled, and his hands scrabbled uselessly, clutching at sand. Desire unfurled too, a dark pulse echoing the throb of his blood which was burning, burning.
Sapphire struck again, lower on his back, where his hands had previously been tied. The air left his lungs silently this time as his spine curled in a half-hearted effort to escape, whole body trembling with the effort of staying put. The sand kept sliding, keeping him off-balance and ungrounded. His back felt sticky, the shreds of his shirt pulling at each cut with licks of fresh pain every breath he took.
“Good,” she murmured from somewhere distantly above him. “Good, love, you're almost there.”
The third and fourth strikes hit both sides of his back, one right after the other, in a blur of pain that turned the space behind his eyelids dark red and made the tendons in his hands stand out sharply as he dug his fingernails into the shifting sand. One breath, another, teetering on the edge. Too much, not enough, too much...
A pause, a shift of air as Sapphire knelt beside him, her indrawn breath sounding unnaturally loud and she
she struck his lacerated back squarely with the flat of her palm and Steel roared, bowing beneath her and tearing the sash that bound his wrists with the force of his convulsion, trembling all over and breathing in staccato even as she gentled him, brought him down, and gathered his jerking limbs to her. Her hand found him, achingly hard through his trousers, and she had barely touched him before he went rigid against her, making a faint, lost sound as a flood of pleasure washed over the searing agony in a confusion of sensation. Sapphire pressed her hands on either side of his face, breathed into him, through his empty, reeling mind, and he utterly let go, falling slack against her as the world went fuzzy around the edges.
He had no idea how long he stayed like that, sprawled across Sapphire on the sand as she cradled him protectively. His mind was blank, vastly blank, no white noise and no bone-searing cold. Nothing but heat and silence.
How do you feel, love?
He raised his head with what felt like a tremendous effort, and met her gentle gaze. Relaxed. Very, very relaxed.
She shook slightly with silent laughter. “Good.”
Steel let his head drop again, pressing his ear against her sternum and listening to the steady heartbeat beneath him.