Chapter 10

A creature of wild beauty stood on the beach, head thrown back, arms spread wide. His flesh was cross-hatched with thick red lines, painted in bright blood the rain could not touch. The lines spread across his face, down his arms and over the palms of his open hands, across his belly and his thighs, even down his calves and bare feet. Only the chest and throat were unmarked, and that alone allowed Blair to recognize himself, though he had been wrong about what that nakedness meant. Light blazed from the bare places, so hot, so pure that for a moment Blair forgot the cold sand under his back, the colder rain falling into his face.

He put both hands on Jim's head and pressed gently, so the side of Jim's face was warm over his heart, and he let himself feel all the affection he had for Jim without doubt or despair to cloud it. Nothing but the love he had for this man who was the best of all friends, given freely and with joy instead of fear. Jim made a sound that was not a moan or a cry at all, but the sound of a man coming home at last. Blair closed his eyes, just for an instant, but when he looked back, there was nothing but a gull, fat and indolent, perched on a piece of driftwood, staring mulishly at the two of them in the sand.

When Jim spoke, Blair felt the heat of his breath against his stomach. "Help me up," he said, his voice low and harsh. "We need to get moving."

"Jim!" Blair whispered. "Oh man, Jim. Oh, MAN." He kept running his hands over Jim's head, so relieved he hardly knew what to do. None of it mattered. None of it. Jim was going to be OK. He was, Blair was certain now. First things first. Jim was right. They had to get up. Blair had had just about enough of wet, cold sand and pouring rain. Work on little goals first. Little rewards, one at a time.

"Hey, Jim," he said quietly. "Know what's gonna feel great? Getting to the car and getting out of the rain. Cranking up the heat, finally getting warm for the first time all night. What do you say?"

Jim's head nodded a little against Blair's chest, but he didn't loosen his grip. Blair thought perhaps he didn't understand that Blair couldn't get up; neither one of them could while Jim's arms were locked around him like that. Or maybe he did know, and just couldn't let go anyway. Blair thought he understood that.

"OK," Blair breathed. "OK. Everything's gonna be fine. Let's try this though. Just so we can get out of here." He smoothed his hands over Jim's head again, gently stroked the curve of Jim's throat with his open hand, then ran his palms over Jim's shoulders and back, as far as he could reach. He could feel the way Jim seemed to shiver with every touch. Not from cold or pain. Not even fear. Or if there was fear, it was less important than Jim's need. "It's all right, Jim," he whispered. "I've got you. You're safe now. Not ever going to leave you again. I promise. I promise."

Blair shifted just the tiniest bit, and Jim's arms tightened like steel bands.

"Hey, wait, it's OK," Blair breathed. "You listening to me here? It's OK." He brought one hand up and touched Jim's face. "Just need for you to work with me here, and I'll take care of you. You know you can trust me, Jim. You know you can believe me."

Blair waited a long time, then. The white dawn sky shone in bars beneath the heavy clouds, low slanting lines through the thin rain. Blair could see the gray light on the surf from where he was. The water looked cold. Finally, Jim nodded again.

Once again Blair felt tears start to his eyes. "Aw, Jim. That's right. You're doing it just right. Now I'm gonna move just a little more here, but I'm not going anywhere without you, got it?"

Blair shifted again, more purposefully this time, turning toward Jim. Jim released him enough to allow Blair to roll onto his side. Blair whispered encouragements the whole time, and when he was stretched out beside Jim, he put his hands on Jim's sides and gently eased him up, so that he was no longer curled around Blair, but instead lying full length beside him. Then Blair put his arms around Jim and held him without moving for a time, waiting until Jim was calm.

Blair's heart was beating fast too, and he was panting with exhaustion. Oh god, they still had a long way to go before they found safety. The thought of that distance was enough to make him despair, but that wasn't an option anymore, not with Jim here in his arms, holding him with such frank and utter trust, believing Blair when everything else in the universe had betrayed him.

Blair felt white heat again. This time it wasn't displaced. It was here, between them, over his heart, next to Jim's. He had known how much he loved Jim. But he had never suspected his own strength, never had an idea how much power that love gave him. Its warmth flared between them, and Blair heard himself gasp a little. Jim only pressed closer.

Again, long moments passed. But Blair waited, serene and calm in his strength, and when it was time he drew one knee up carefully and pulled his arm back, tucking it under himself so he could push himself up. Jim didn't protest his movement, not even when he had to let go of Jim with one arm.

"Gonna sit up now, OK, Jim? But I'm not going to leave you. I'm never going to leave you." Blair slowly pushed himself up until he was kneeling beside Jim in the sand. He kept one hand on Jim's shoulder the whole time, and Jim lay very still, only shivering a little.

"Aw, Jim," Blair moaned, humbled by Jim's trust. He bowed his head so he could press his forehead to Jim's shoulder. One of Jim's hands came up and gently cupped the back of Blair's head as he knelt there, so Blair stayed where he was. His heart was racing. Such a tiny gesture from Jim, but it meant everything in the world. The warmth of Jim's hand above the nape of his neck was another sign Jim was coming back to him.

Blair touched Jim's face gently. He couldn't see Jim because his eyes were closed, his forehead still pressed to Jim's naked shoulder. "Now?" he asked.

"Now," Jim breathed hoarsely in response, and tried to sit up.

"Careful," Blair said. "Easy, Jim. No hurry, no rush here. Just take your time, man." He sat up part way himself, pulling Jim's arm around his own shoulders. "Here we go. Just let me help you, and we'll be OK."

Jim's eyes were squeezed shut. It was light enough for Blair to see more than he really wanted to. Jim's lower lip was swollen a little on one side, the corner of his mouth puffy and beginning to darken. There were marks around Jim's left eye, too, the beginnings of nasty shiner.

And those welts across Jim's chest. Little white patches where the skin was beginning to blister. Blair's stomach rolled over. He was so lightheaded for an instant that he shut his eyes, afraid he was about to faint. "OK," he gasped. "OK, just give me a minute here."

Jim moaned in response, frightened, and Blair opened his eyes fast. Geez, what was the matter with him? "Sorry, Jim. Sorry, I'm OK. You ready now?" He tightened the grip he had on Jim's forearm, then slowly sat up and pulled back, pulling Jim up as he did. Jim did his best to help, his head down, his other hand pushing in the sand. Blair rose to a crouch. Jim's arm was still over his shoulders, and he wrapped his own arms around Jim's ribs. Jim's back was gritty with sand. Both of them were covered with it. Blair thought how the sand and salt water must be hurting Jim, and pushed the thought away furiously. That distress did no good. There was nothing he could do about it until he got Jim off the beach.

"And here we go, man. Up and at 'em." Blair lurched to his feet, trying to drag Jim up with him. Seemed like all they had been doing all night. Staggering up again and again, trying their damnedest to get off the beach. Harder every time. Blair was amazed Jim still had the strength to keep trying.

You gave him that strength. A tiny voice from somewhere far away, or perhaps very, very close that he was too weary and determined to censor. Your strength, Sandburg. Your love.

Aw man. There we go. They were standing again. "Jim?" Blair whispered, and Jim wrapped his arm around Blair's head and pulled him closer, tucking Blair's head under his chin.

Under his hands, Blair felt the fine coating of beach sand on Jim's skin shift and grind together. It was between them too, an omnipresent irritation, he could even feel it on his legs under his jeans. Jim shuddered a little, still trying to hold Blair closely, chin resting hard against the top of his head as if the weight of his own was too much to bear alone.

"Shhh," Blair murmured, even though Jim hadn't said anything. Aimlessly he moved his hands, beginning to try to brush the sand off Jim's back. Jim gasped and his back spasmed as if he'd been whipped. Blair froze. His stomach clenched in dismay and he held his breath, not daring to move at all, waiting to see if Jim would flee the pain again. Jim shook, and Blair could feel the weight bearing down on him as Jim's knees buckled slightly. "No," Blair moaned. They'd gotten so close, been doing so well... OK, all they'd done was stand up, but it was progress, and now he was going to lose even that.

But Jim's arms tightened around him, sliding a little, the sand digging into them both across the contact, and his knees locked stubbornly. He leaned heavily on Blair, breathing in painful gasps, his whole body continuing to shake for a minute.

"OK, I won't do that again, I promise," Blair whispered. He kept himself still, letting Jim regain what little equilibrium he had, his own breath rough.

The dawn continued to rise, gray and silent, the misty rain almost indistinguishable from the salty fog forming around them that glowed with the light as if the air was alive. The sound of the surf was a constant dull roar in the background. Blair could hear it over the harsh sound of Jim's labored breathing. Twisting his neck a little, he looked in the direction they had to go to reach the car, but the fog hid their destination. All he could see was a barricade of sand where the beach ended and the higher ground started. Scrub grass was clumped on the face of the slope, looking sharp-edged even in the fuzzy lighting.

Blair couldn't help the sigh that heaved through his chest. He remembered it had been at least three hundred yards from where the car was parked on the narrow shoulder of the road, across the uneven ground to that sharp drop onto the sandy shore. It had been a short, easy hike for him on the way in. Returning looked like an impossible journey.

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