The splash didn't sound that much different than all the other wet sounds of the night around him, but somehow Blair knew it wasn't another natural sound of the surf or the rain. He turned instinctively, heading for the waterline, then beginning to jog along the edge of the surf toward the spot where the headlands rose up from the shingle. Straining his eyes, he peered into the darkness, searching the shallow water for some sign, fearing he would find one, wishing all the while he had Jim's abilities.
There was another bout of splashing and he dashed toward it, not caring how many other things it could be besides the one he feared. Along with the hissing sound of the rain on the sea, and the sea on the beach, now he could hear another, more painful sound, and it drove him to push into the surf further. "Jim!"
The choked cry of agony he heard in response made his skin go colder than the Alaskan current around his body. Wishing he'd tied his hair back, he pushed it angrily out of his eyes, wading deeper into the water, infuriated by how it slowed his progress.
Even so, it was only seconds later that he reached Jim. Ellison was flailing weakly in the water, closer to sinking than swimming, only the fact he could stand on the sloping bottom having saved him from drowning already. The sobbing sounds of pain that escaped his throat ran freezing shivers down Blair's spine. He had never heard James Ellison make a sound like that before, and he prayed he never would again, all the while fearing he might never hear anything else from him. The fear made him careful, though Jim's agonized cries made him frantic with the need to help. He called again, low and soft this time, as he approached to arms' length and reached out.
Jim cried out again, but this time there was a pleading note to it, and he turned helplessly toward Blair.
"Come on, Jim, let me help you," Blair said, unable to suppress the shiver from his own voice.
The hand that latched onto his trembled at the contact, then let go again as another sob was ripped from Jim's throat. The sounds Jim was making were almost words, almost understandable, but Blair knew he couldn't spare enough of his heart to listen to them now.
Hardening his resolve, Blair grabbed at the sleeve of Jim's shirt and tugged, trying to pull him toward the shore, coaxing in a low voice the whole time. Jim didn't precisely fight him, but neither was he able to help, caught in some hell of his own that left him none of his strength or control. After a few moments of fruitless struggle, Blair stopped pulling at Jim, and instead moved closer. While the water surged cold around his thighs, he lifted Jim's arm and laid it over his shoulders, then wrapped his arm around Jim's waist.
"OK, Jim, let's try it together. I'm getting kind of cold out here, so the sooner we can get outta the water the better, all right?" It was too dark for Blair to see the expression on Jim's face, but Jim's head turned toward him. "One step at a time, OK? Here we go."
The hand on Blair's shoulder tightened convulsively, and Jim made a terrible sound. Not quite a word. "Aw, Jim," Blair moaned. "Please, we gotta get out of the water."
The arm across Blair's shoulders suddenly felt heavier. Jim's knees had buckled, and he was falling. Blair fought to brace himself so he could support them both, but Jim's weight bore them down into the surf. Blair squeezed his eyes shut as the cold salt water dashed against his face, knowing that no matter what happened, he couldn't let go. He managed to grab Jim's shirt with both hands, but then the tide rushed back, and the current pulled Jim with it. Blair felt fabric tear under his hands and come loose. Jim was sliding from his grip.
"Jim!" Blair screamed, his eyes wide open now, heedless of the salt in his eyes and the water down his throat. He risked loosening his grip with one hand long enough to grab at the waistband of Jim's jeans, and managed to hook his hand around Jim's belt.
He pulled back, his heels sinking into the sand, shouting at Jim all the while. The water was shallow here, if Jim would just stand up they would be all right. But Jim didn't seem to understand him. Or couldn't understand him. Or maybe just didn't want to. He was on his knees, every wave that rolled up the shore threatening to sweep him away. He shook his head a little and coughed when the water hit his face, but he was doing nothing to help Blair, far less to help himself.
Dammit, Blair thought, frantic and furious. If he didn't do something both of them were going to drown in two feet of water. He wasn't strong enough to haul Jim out of the surf by himself. He was fighting as hard as he could, but he was no match for the tide that dragged Jim a little further away with every wave. His shoulders were burning from the strain, his feet buried so deep in the wet sand by now he wasn't sure how he would get himself to shore, much less Jim.
No. Not like this. Oh please, not like this. Jim deserved so much better.
Blair released the grip he had on Jim's belt. The ruins of Jim's shirt swirled around him like seaweed, catching at Blair with spectrally trailing fingers. Even in the rain-washed darkness the white t-shirt Jim had left was faintly visible, making him look like a ghost alternately rising from and sinking back into the shifting, dark surface of the ocean. Standing beside him, Blair felt like a thin, cold spirit himself, powerless to move any part of the world around himself.
The sand held Blair's shoes in a grip like that of setting concrete and he dragged his feet out of them with a curse before dropping to his knees in the cold surf beside Jim. Jim's head was down, heedless of the foam and wavelets, but Blair took his head in both hands and raised it, forcing Jim to look at him. Blair still couldn't see the expression on his face. He knew Jim could see him, though, if he would only look.
Jim's sobs were much quieter now, but they hadn't stopped. Mindless, choked cries. Hopeless, helpless. The sound of them made Blair feel dizzy and sick, and he began to think a terrible thing. He didn't know if he could possibly bring Jim back from that dark place in his own mind. And if he couldn't, would Jim even want to survive?
No. No, he wouldn't. Blair knew that much about the man. Jim would rather let the ocean take him.
And if the sea took Jim, it might as well take Blair also.
He wrapped his arms around Jim's shoulders and pressed his face to Jim's cold cheek. The rain drizzled down, rinsing more salt from his hair into his eyes, but he kept them open, looking into the darkness. A wave smashed against them, but Blair braced himself and didn't move. It seemed to him, in that moment, that he could crouch there in the icy surf forever.
Or at least until Jim made his decision.
"It's your call," Blair said quietly. "I can't get you out by myself. I'm sorry, I just can't do it." He didn't know if there was enough of Jim left to reach, but he kept talking just the same. "I don't wanna die, man, but I'm not going to leave you. I'll stay right here, Jim. We'll do this together."
There was no response from Jim at all. Blair tried to hold him tighter, but the cold had numbed his fingers, and the long struggle in the freezing surf had weakened Blair more than he realized. He clung to Jim as half a dozen waves broke over them, foaming toward the shore in barely-seen patterns of white in the deep night, but finally one came that swept Blair away. He tumbled headlong, swallowing mouthfuls of burning salt water, his shoulder hitting the sandy bottom hard. He rolled again, his eyes open in the water, not knowing whether he was being pushed closer to shore or being dragged out to sea. Then his knees hit, and for a moment he got his head up.
Jim was gone.
An incoming wave rolled Blair again, and he didn't fight it. He thought briefly of Naomi, and grief closed around his heart. The next wave smashed him down hard. His chin scraped the bottom. Jim, I'm sorry.
Then a hand closed around the back of Blair's collar. He was dragged above the waves by sheer force and, knowing who had him, Blair began to struggle for life again, gulping air desperately. His feet pushed against the bottom, and he resisted the next wave.
Jim wrapped his arm around Blair's ribs and pulled him forward, dragging them both toward the shore. A dozen paces, two dozen, the waves pulling them back with every step. Jim was roaring, screaming, but he didn't let Blair go. His forearm was bearing down with such force across Blair's ribs that Blair was shouting too, involuntary grunts of pain, but he didn't hear himself.
Jim was here. Blair had failed him, hadn't been strong enough for the two of them after all, but it was all right, Jim was back, and he would make it all right somehow.
They reached the rocky beach, stumbling and lurching together. Jim still hadn't let him go. Blair let himself be dragged further up the strand, but then Jim stumbled and they both fell heavily. Suddenly Jim was silent. Blair sat up, reaching for him. Jim lay where he had fallen, half curled on his side, knees drawn up.
"Jim." Blair put his hand on his shoulder and pushed a little. "Jim." When he still didn't respond, Blair laid his hand gently on Jim's face and found that his eyes were open. "Jim, can you hear me?"
Jim began to keen.
Something flashed in the distance. Crouched close over Jim, cradling his head with both hands, Blair risked glancing up.
There were flashlights up the beach. The men Jim had escaped were looking for him.
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